The documentary “Amazing Grace” is an imperfect but vital artifact of one of music’s most luminous moments: Aretha Franklin’s two-night gospel performance in January 1972 that was captured for her landmark album of the same name.
Franklin was one of music’s biggest stars at this point, and wanted to return to her roots. She chose the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles as the location, led by Rev. James Cleveland, with the Southern California Community Choir (conducted by — no kidding — Alexander Hamilton). Warner Bros. Records hired Sydney Pollack, whose “Jeremiah Johnson” would be released later that year, to capture the moment on film.
The movie is a very unadorned chronicle of Franklin’s performance. After brief introductions from Cleveland, who reminds the assembled that this is a religious service and not a nightclub show, Franklin takes the stage in modest dress — a sparkling white gown on night one, a green-and-white printed caftan-like dress on the second night — and sings modern and classic songs for the glory of Jesus.
The spirit is strong in this film. Franklin engages in the call-and-response with Hamilton’s choir, and with Cleveland, who serves as opening act and hype man. On the second night, Franklin’s preacher father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, gets up to the pulpit for a heartfelt sermon that demonstrates how close the apple fell from the tree. Franklin’s mentor, the singer Clara Ward, is in attendance. So is Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts — and Pollack annoyingly makes sure we get multiple shots of Jagger’s presence.
Alas, it’s not the only slip-up Pollack makes. The biggest is that he never used clapperboards, so the footage couldn’t be synched up to the audio, making all of the hard-won footage useless for decades. Producer Alan Elliott eventually got the footage from Pollack, just before his death in 2008, and was able to use digital technology to synchronize the audio to the visual. (Pollack’s name was kept off the film, at his family’s request.)
Even after Elliott’s efforts, the film was delayed from release for years, because of legal challenges by Franklin, even to the point of preventing the movie’s premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival. Only after Frankllin’s death in 2018 did her estate make a deal with Elliott — who is credited as having “realized and produced” the film — for its release.
“Amazing Grace” serves as a testament to the power of Aretha Franklin’s talent, the strength of her faith, and the love of the community who supported her.
Opened April 5 in select cities; opens Friday, April 19, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated G. Running time: 89 minutes.