I’m not saying anything that isn’t inherently obvious when I tell you that the late Aretha Franklin was one of the most talented singers ever to have graced our eyes and ears with her time on this Earth. We all know that. Aretha Franklin could hum and bring a tear to your eye. She was born to be a singer, but this talent was nurtured from a very young age by her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin was at the top of her game. She already rocked the charts with her rendition of Otis Redding’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” She was world famous. It was a perfect time for her to return to her roots. Aretha had sung in church and on tour with her father from a young age. She wanted to let the world hear her sing the songs that shaped her talent and ultimately brought her to international fame. You can tell Franklin believed God was responsible for all the good in her life. So, she decided to record a gospel album live in a church, because what better place, right?
The album, also entitled Amazing Grace, recorded over the course of two nights at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, ends up being the most successful gospel album of all time. The filming of its’ recording hasn’t been seen by a wide audience till now, due to technical difficulties. Directed by legendary director Sydney Pollack, the film was initially supposed to air on television.
“…recorded over the course of two nights at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, ends up being the most successful gospel album of all time.”
Amazing Grace, on its surface, is a concert film. However, it also serves as a time capsule. The outfits of every person in this film are incredible and are pretty much the height of 70’s fashion. Aretha has on three of the most amazing dresses I have ever seen and wish they resided in my closet. It’s also interesting to see young Sydney Pollack running around, telling the cameramen what to shoot. The recordings of both sessions were open to the public, so all kinds of people were there. The people who went to church all the time, and some people who I assume definitely did not, including Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. I find it exceptionally hilarious that one of the camera operators keeps tracking down Jagger in the audience, even though he moves several times.
Something else Amazing Grace shows us is the inner-workings of a black Baptist church service. The musicality and spirit of the black church is where Gospel was born. There is a lot of dancing and clapping. I was always jealous of black Baptist churches when I was younger and forced to go to different churches that were definitely nowhere near as fun as this particular church service appeared to be.
“Her performance of these songs makes these timeless gospel songs into something none of us have ever heard before or will hear again.”
Amazing Grace is not a perfect concert film. That would be The Last Waltz and this isn’t it. Simply because of the technical difficulties with the sound recording. The sound syncs up with the visuals but you can tell that it has been remastered and it just seems a little out of place with the way the performance is filmed. However, the concert itself is….amazing. Aretha Franklin doesn’t say a single word to the audience, to rest her voice. Instead, that is covered by Reverend James Cleveland, who Aretha knew since she was a child. Reverend Cleveland has charisma for days and fits the mold of a baptist preacher to a tee. He’s sweating and bellowing and has an “Amen” for just about everything. Something particularly funny for me, since I’ve done a lot of live performance myself, is when someone spills a whole cup of water on some wires, the reverend says “Amen for technical difficulties” and then says “Amen to the technician for fixing these technical difficulties”. A lot of people should say “Amen” for good sound guys because they’re hard to find.
Aretha has The Southern California Community Choir, her band, as well as Reverend Cleveland backing her on all of the songs, but unsurprisingly, Aretha is the one who blows us away. Her performance of these songs makes these timeless gospel songs into something none of us have ever heard before or will hear again. I think it’s wonderful that producer Alan Elliott was able to release this to audiences now, especially since Aretha is no longer with us. It’s also great that Sydney Pollack captured this performance for prosperity originally. I loved the performance even though I would definitely not typically refer to myself as a fan of gospel music. I think there’s something for everyone in Amazing Grace. I would definitely recommend checking this out if you’re a fan of concert docs, or of the queen of soul. Even if you’re none of those things, it’s an interesting historical document, so give it a go!
Amazing Grace (2019) Directed by Sydney Pollack/Alan Elliott. Starring Aretha Franklin, Reverend James Cleveland, C.L. Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Bernard Pretty Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Clara Ward, Cornell Dupree, Kenneth Lupper, Sydney Pollack, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts.
7 out of 10 stars