The never-before-seen movie featuring Aretha Franklin recording the most successful gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace. Crafted from footage originally captured in 1972.
"The energy of her performance is ELECTRIFYING"
Amazing Grace: the story behind the electrifying Aretha Franklin movie
The late singer’s niece and the film’s producer talk about the troubled process of bringing a defining 1972 performance to the big screen
In Aretha Franklin’s revelatory concert film Amazing Grace, she barely speaks a word. Aside from one muffled request for water and a hushed discussion with her musical director, there’s not a peep out of her.
Instead, she focuses her concentration wholly on the spirit of the gospel music she came to perform during the film’s historic two-day shoot, which took place in January 1972 at the New Temple Baptist Mission church in Los Angeles. “She came for a church service,” the late singer’s niece Sabrina Owens, who controls the estate, said to the Guardian.
“The way she conducted herself was totally different than what you would see at one of her pop concerts. Her eyes were closed. Her head was thrown back. She was focused entirely on something higher.”
To witness the whiplash contrast between that self-effacement, and the star power of her vocal performance, is just one element which greatly distinguishes watching the Amazing Grace film from listening to the album of the same name, which came out late in 1972.
That double-set became Franklin’s biggest-selling album, as well as the top-grossing gospel collection of all time. Meanwhile, the film lay uncompleted in the vaults for another 38 years, hobbled by gobsmacking mistakes, poor planning and, eventually, by Franklin’s health issues.
After a complex, fraught and dragged-out series of events, the movie was finally completed by the producer Alan Elliott last fall, allowing for fleeting runs in two US cities in December. Amazing Grace has just started a broader release, followed by a full, international roll-out on 19 April.
While Elliott finished the film, he had no connection to the original shoot (he was seven at the time). His initial connection came in the early 90s, when he was a staff producer for Atlantic Records. Jerry Wexler, who had co-produced many of Franklin’s greatest hits for the label, mentioned the languishing footage to Elliott, who had long been a fan of the Amazing Grace album.
The two had brief talks at the time with the man who directed the film back in 1972, Sydney Pollack. However, a full decade and a half passed before Elliott began to nudge Wexler again about the film, leading to a reconnection with Pollack. By that time, the director was gravely ill with cancer, a disease that would take his life the next year, in 2008. According to Elliott, Pollack told him at the time: “You know this movie better than I do. You finish it.”
Soon, he discovered what a daunting task that would be. The reason the film hadn’t been completed was because Pollack neglected to take the most rudimentary step in synchronizing the sound of the music to the images in the film.
All that would have been required to accomplish that was to employ a most common filmic device: a clapperboard, which snaps open at the start of a piece of film and shuts at the end of it, thus marking the visual segment to be connected to its sonic corollary. In this case, “the camera guys kept turning their cameras off and on, and off and on”, Elliott said. “So, there were, like, 15 or 20 different start points on a given piece of film. It’s just unfathomable.”
The result left about 2,000 pieces of film bits without sync points. Such a colossal screw-up might never have happened had the film studio hired the original guy they would considered to helm the project – James Signorelli, who served as cinematographer on Super Fly, a film which achieved the tricky feat of matching its dialogue to live music created by Curtis Mayfield. But because Pollack’s previous movie, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, earned him an Oscar nomination for best director, the studio went with the bigger name.
According to Elliott, Pollack did no pre-production work for Amazing Grace, and, afterwards, didn’t even write down the names of the songs.
While the clapperboard oversight may have scotched the original release, Elliott feels it created a secondary gain. “All of those cameras moving in and out, and turning on and off, gave this energy to the footage, and it also allowed them to take these beautiful pictures,” he said.
The tedious work of finding the connecting points between the film’s image and sound fell to a special technical team in 2008. “They spent three weeks to get all 13 or 14 hours of film synced,” said Elliott.
Even so, another 10 years would pass before lingering legal issues involving the singer and the movie would be worked out.
For a long time, no one could locate a signed contract from Franklin to approve the film’s release.
Once they finally did, in 2013, she challenged it, preventing planned screenings at several film festivals at that time.
Franklin’s niece says she doesn’t know why the singer held things up. “She never talked about the film,” Owen said, adding that she does know that her aunt cherished the original performance.
In the past, Elliott has said that Franklin asked for $5m to grant final approval of the film, but he now believes the main issue that affected things at the end was her worsening health. “This was a slow, slow death that she had to go through,” he said. “If she had to do a tour, or do press around this movie, I understand her decision. If she had been healthy, I believe the movie would have come out.”
Owens said she had no second thoughts about approving the film’s release several months after her aunt’s death. “Everybody in the family had the same feeling,” she said. “There’s nothing offensive in the film. If she was that opposed, she would have let somebody know. That didn’t happen.”
For Elliott, the film has great value apart from the album. For the recording, Franklin added instruments in the studio, such as a celesta, and also overdubbed some of her vocals. By contrast, the film “is just the stuff that was in the room”, he said. “It’s more truthful.”
The visuals also allow viewers to see the striking effect Franklin’s music had on the churchgoers who made up most of the audience, as well as on the Southern California Community Choir, the 30-member group who backed her. “They’re the characters in the film,” said Elliott. “They’re the people urging her on, making sure she goes farther and deeper into Amazing Grace.”
It’s stirring, as well, to see Franklin work with her band, including Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie. “Those guys are what Jerry Wexler called ‘the Profane Rhythm Section’,” Elliott said. “He had them rehearse with her for 30 days in the church, and with the choir, to get what he called ‘the cadence back’.”
It’s telling, too, to see the singer at such a young age. At 29, we see her clear deference for her father, the Reverend CL Franklin, who, on the second day, came in to declaim in one segment.
We also see Franklin’s awe for her mentor, gospel star Clara Ward, who was in the audience for the second show. Hanging out in the back of the church are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in Los Angeles at the time to record Exile on Main Street.
Like everyone present, they got whipped up in the ecstatic devotion of performances like Wholy Holy, God Will Take Care of You and Amazing Grace.
Each ambled on for seven to 11 minutes, elaborated by Franklin’s enraptured whoops, cries and fills.
Her impassioned filigrees invited empathic responses from the choir, and found stalwart support from the event’s MC, the Rev James Cleveland.
At the core of it all stood a singer aloof from the crowd but connected, fundamentally, to the eternal. “Jerry Wexler used to call her ‘Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrow’,” Elliott said. “But this shows her to be ‘Our Lady of Mysterious Joy’. She becomes a tabula rasa of a woman. We can read into her whatever we want.
It’s something very human and unique at the core. It’s Aretha.”