In 1972, following her monumental success, Aretha Franklin wanted to try something different for her next album. In collaboration with Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, conducted by Alexander Hamilton, Franklin, near peak of her talents, recorded a gospel album over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A. At the time, the shows were documented by a film crew, directed by Sydney Pollack all captured on 16mm. However, due to issues synching the raw footage with the audio, the movie was never completed and placed in Warner Bros vault. Until now.
I’ll keep this as brief as possible. This film hit me like a freight train. While I’m a huge fan of the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Etta James etc, I had never listened to the original album of Amazing Grace, and, quite frankly, I’m glad I didn’t, because seeing the recording session as well as taking in the music for the first time adds an emotional wallop I truly wasn’t ready for. There’s an incredibly emotional aspect to the film that the album misses – a series of small and large details that all work together to make the all too brief 87 minute runtime a truly joyous experience. It’s one thing that Franklin was one of the best, if not a legend in her own right, but it’s another to watch her put every ounce of soul and every fibre of her being behind every note she sings. The love she had for gospel, for church and for singing is palpable here and I challenge anyone watching this with even a modicum of interest in Aretha’s music to not be deeply moved by what they hear and see. Her rendition of Amazing Grace is truly awe inspiring, and it left me a blubbering mess watching the kind of effect she has on those around her – members of the choir literally lifted to their feet and wiping away tears as they cheer her on during the hymn and Cleveland himself needing to take seat from being overwhelmed. Even now it’s hard not to get misty eyed just thinking about it.
Adding to the overall emotion of the event is the almost rough-as-guts nature of the footage and physical setting. While I’m sure we’re pretty used to far more polished concert footage of other performances, there’s an almost home video quality that lends the film much more impact than if there were sweeping crane shots and cleaner cinematography. Here the lighting is bright and flat. Everyone, from the congregation to the crew can be seen clear as day, the floor is awash with sound chords, camera lenses / gates aren’t as clean as they should be and Pollack himself is seen either crossing cameras or scurrying behind the choir itself to get a decent shot. And it all works wonderfully. It feels like far more of a joint experience, giving it a much more communal feel – as church is – and allows for the myth of Aretha to be broken down so you can see only the woman with the angelic voice fill those around her with a blistering emotional intensity. There’s even a special joy watching her father wipe the sweat from her brow in only the way a father could, filling my heart over and over again.
If you consider yourself a fan of Aretha Franklin, a fan of soul, of gospel or even just of music, you owe yourself a kindness by seeking this film out as soon as it’s out. It will fill you with a kind of happiness that only Aretha’s voice can.
Amazing Grace is in cinemas August 29th.