As far as holy grails go, they don’t come much holier than this.
This isn’t a secret recording. In fact, it may be one of the most famous concert recordings in music history, then made infamous by how hard Franklin worked to ensure it would never see the light of day. Now, after her death and years of legal battles to block its release, Amazing Grace, the 1972 documentary shot by the late Sydney Pollack, premiered Monday night at the 2018 DOC NYC festival in New York.
It is a transcendent, religious experience as far as these things go: an hour and a half of Aretha Franklin in top voice singing gospel music at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She performed the songs—“How I Got Over,” “Precious Memories,” and a legendary 11-minute “Amazing Grace”—over the course of two days, which were recorded for a live album that marked her return to gospel after a string of 11 No. 1 pop and R&B hits. It became the best-selling album of her career.
Watching her sing those album cuts that would, for the five decades that followed, soundtrack so many Americans’ spiritual existence is exactly as moving as you’d expect.
For much of the documentary, Franklin merely stands at the pulpit and sings, sweat soaking her face from the vocal gymnastics tumbling through her soul, out of her mouth, and into the church those two nights. There’s little camera trickery, no particularly visual stage work, and few guests. (The Rev. James Cleveland, a gospel legend in his own right, emcees and occasionally duets.)
From the way she purposefully and patiently purrs out just the first “ah…” sound of “Amazing Grace” to the wall of sound coming from the backing Southern California Community Choir, somehow lifting Franklin’s voice up even higher, your body crawls with goosebumps. As congregants are moved to their feet by her various runs and inflections, your heart leaps in time.
It’s a profound cinematic experience. The question is whether we should be having it at all. At the very least, if Franklin would want us to be watching.
The 46-year wait for the film’s first screening may actually be Sydney Pollack’s fault.
It was Warner Bros’ idea to film the concerts. It was a big deal and a major investment at the time. Mick Jagger sat in a back pew one of the nights. According to Indiewire, the company initially planned to release the footage as a double bill with Superfly!.
Pollack led a team of four men, shooting over 20 hours of raw footage across the two nights Franklin performed. But he screwed up, failing to use clapper boards, a filmmaking necessity used to help sync up picture and sound. Post-production editors were left with an impossible task.
Both Warner Bros. and Pollack eventually moved on. In 2007, one year before Pollack passed away, music executive Alan Elliott purchased the reels from Warner Bros. with the goal of finishing the film. It actually became feasible when digital technology was developed in 2010 that made syncing the footage and sound possible.
Franklin first sued to block its release in 2011 by arguing that the film uses her likeness without her permission, kicking off years of legal battles. This in turn sparked rumors about what Franklin might be hiding from the public, or what she may have disliked about it. (One theory, reported by The New York Times, is that footage of Franklin at age 30 singing “Never Grow Old” may have been too hard for her to confront in the sunset of her life and career.)
After attending Monday’s first-ever press screening of Amazing Grace, we can confirm there’s nothing scandalous in the film.
Franklin barely speaks. The small amount of rehearsal footage edited in reveals no diva behavior. In fact, you learn little about her personality or even her process at all. No, there’s nothing untoward here that Franklin was trying to keep from being revealed, let alone self-consciousness over an abundance of close-ups showing her perspiration while singing. (And there’s no evidence of that kind of vanity, let alone why anyone should be judgmental of that, throughout Franklin’s career.)
At least one reason emerged in 2015 when she successfully blocked the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals from screening the film, arguably interpreted along the lines of singer Brandy’s “But we need the audience to buy the album” meme after a talk show giveaway. “The film is the functional equivalent of replaying an entire Aretha Franklin concert without her consent,” Franklin’s attorneys wrote in a complaint.
The Colorado court agreed, ruling in 2016 that the film, in its recreation of a concert experience, doesn’t constitute “fair use” of Pollack’s footage. In an interview last year with Variety, Telluride’s executive director said frankly, “(Franklin’s) resolve for it not being shown is so intense, and I don’t think any us really understand it all the way.”
That mystery, as the film screens finally for the first time, seems to be clearing up a bit.
Franklin had said publicly before she died that she “loved” the content of the film. It appears to have been deals and compensation that prevented her from allowing her likeness to be used. That all seems to have been settled between Elliott and Franklin’s estate following her death.
“Her fans need to see this film, which is so pure and so joyous,” Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and the executor of the Franklin estate, told The New York Times. “And the world needs to see it. Our country, it’s in such a state right now.”
Owens had invited Elliott to her aunt’s funeral, after which Elliott offered to show her and her family the film, restarting talks for a possible release. Neither has revealed what the terms of this new deal is but, following the film’s DOC NYC premiere Monday, it is assumed that Amazing Grace is going to, 46 years later, get its theatrical run.
There’s no denying the power of the film, compounded by viewing it while still in mourning over Franklin’s death. It’s testimony to the talent and the soul of the greatest singer and most spiritual performer there ever was. Not that we needed more proof, but it’s a wonder to bear witness to.
If only Franklin’s wishes didn’t cast an immovable shadow over the production. Her estate may have worked out a deal and consented to its release. But Franklin herself never did, at least not publicly. Should that matter?
The documentary ends with Franklin directing the backing choir herself as she sings her last song, taking control of the proceedings to orchestrate the perfect, rousing grand finale to the landmark event. Here we are, all these years later with the fraught journey to Amazing Grace’s release. All this time, it seems she’s been doing the same.