In 1972, after a series of successes and Grammy awards, Aretha Franklin decided that her next project would be a return to her roots. The daughter of a Detroit preacher, Franklin secured a Baptist church in Los Angeles for a two-night recording session, and the result was Amazing Grace, her most successful album and best-selling gospel recording from all the time.
Warner Bros. Records hired Sydney Pollack to film the process, looking for a mix between a concert film and a making-of. Pollack had just made They Shoot Horses, right? and had already completed Jeremiah Johnson’s production. Although it’s hard to believe, the production of two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church resulted in unnecessary footage. The team neglected to lay out the shots with clapperboards, necessary for sound and picture to sync – a bewildering omission and one of the reasons Amazing Grace only debuted in 2018.
After Pollack’s death in 2008, music producer Alan Elliot solved the audiovisual problem using modern editing tools. The film was supposed to screen at the Telluride and Toronto festivals in 2015, but a last-minute injunction from Franklin herself stopped it: its reasons remain a mystery. Now, however, three months after his death, the film is ready for its week-long Oscar qualifying run.
Clearly there are ethical issues with watching a movie that the subject didn’t want you to see. And we can quibble as to whether Pollack, Elliot, or credited editor Jeff Buchanan is the true author of the article. But all of that is secondary to the fact that Amazing Grace is, without a doubt, one of the best music documentaries of all time. For nearly 90 minutes, I sat with shivers up and down my spine in an almost constant rolling. Franklin singing gospel in a dimly lit church with rows of cheap movie theater seats filled with ecstatic fans is balm for the mind and something to be seen.
The film is almost wall-to-wall music, with Franklin barely acknowledging the audience between songs. The musical director is the affable Reverend James Cleveland, who also sings and plays the piano. The Southern California Community Choir, decked out in shiny silver vests, is led by its enthusiastic leader, the Reverend Alexander Hamilton. The rest of the band includes top men, such as Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and Chuck Rainey on bass. But it’s not a studio, it’s a church loaded with sound equipment and a team of busy cameramen. Cleveland at one point offers an “amen” to the cessation of technical difficulties.
It is unclear to what extent Pollack dressed the set. A huge painting of a rather muscular Christ coming out of his baptism hangs behind the choir; on the side there is an American flag. Everyone sweats under the burning lights, especially Aretha who stands not under a spotlight, but behind a pulpit: she does not play, she testifies.
The song selection is a mix of traditional gospel tunes plus some Marvin Gaye and Carole King. Halfway through, a stunning rendition of Amazing Grace spans almost 11 minutes. The camera moves to the faces of the choir, who are the first to leap to their feet in support. Then the public, then Cleveland, which goes from tears to sobs. By the end of the song, the whole church is a mess, but somehow Aretha holds it together and hits every note perfectly.
Franklin lets Cleveland do the talking for her on the first night, but on the second night there is a visit from her father, who not only gives a touching speech, he comes to wipe her forehead when the sweat gets too heavy.
Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in Los Angeles to wrap up the Stones’ career high point, Exile on Main St, are also in the night two crowd, and there’s no doubting the gospel inflections of songs like that Shine a Light and Let It Loose were inspired by this visit.
Four decades later, Amazing Grace offers an abundance of time capsule treasures – the clothes, the dancing, the highly visible camera gear. Pollack fidgets, pointing at members of the crowd with a “shoot this” urgency at members of his camera crew. There are also notable racial inequalities that would not be so glaring today. The whole team is white, the audience almost entirely black. The film’s vibe oozes positivity, but there’s an inevitable ethnographic optic to a setup like this.