The story behind Amazing Grace is as fascinating as the film itself. Its existence has been a source of rumor for almost five decades, since the release of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel record, Amazing Grace. The plan had been for the record’s release to coincide with a documentary film showcasing The Queen recording the album in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts. Helmed by legendary director Sydney Pollack (who wasn’t quite legendary yet but had just come off an Oscar nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), the film was to serve as a showcase of Franklin at the height of her ability.
But he fucked up. Having no experience directing musical films, and wanting to make a verité document of Franklin and the album’s recording, he let his cameras roll at will, his cameramen turning them off and on at random, and using no placards to indicate what it was, precisely, that was being recorded. As a result, his footage was largely useless. They had no way to sync the footage with the music.
Pollack tried what he could over the years to no avail. Warner Brothers wrote the movie off. Franklin was pissed—rightly. On his death in 2007, Pollack still hadn’t found a way to put the footage together in a usable fashion (though he’d gone as far as to hire professional lip readers to try and, at the very least, figure out what footage matched which song). Enter Alan Elliot, who bought the footage from the Pollack estate after his death and dedicated himself to, finally, putting the film together.
While Elliot had a working cut of Amazing Grace more or less completed in 2011, that was not the end of the story. Warner Brothers couldn’t find Franklin’s contract. Franklin still had sore feelings about how everything had gone down with the film and launched a series of lawsuits against Elliot preventing the film from being shown. Even after the studio found the original contract, a series of legal moves by Franklin kept the film from being shown at Telluride in 2015 and 2016. It wasn’t until her death in August of last year that Elliot was able to finally negotiate terms of the film’s release with her estate. Now, 47 years after it was first filmed, we can finally see it for ourselves.
The wait was worth it.
Amazing Grace is more than just a testament to the power of Franklin and to the magic of gospel music. It’s one of the best concert films ever made. To watch the film is truly to be a fly on the wall, to see the moments of raw intensity and emotion that crosses not just her lips but also the faces of every member of the choir and every person lucky enough to be in attendance on the two nights she recorded this masterpiece of an album.
As intended, the film adds a new dimension to the record it was supposed to accompany. We see The Queen stop mid-verse while recording “Climbing Higher Mountains,” asking for the Southern California Community Choir and for Reverend James Cleveland to start over and allow her to bring even more emotion to the song. We see how quickly and easily Franklin can inspire an entire building full of people to their feet, moving them with the power of her voice. Even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, seen briefly in the back of the church on the second night, are reverently moved by the power of the room.
We’re even blessed by a brief sermon from Franklin’s father, C.L. Franklin, pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. We are, quite literally, taken to church. He speaks on his daughter’s talents, her influences, and how her gospel roots have inspired her throughout her amazing and legendary career.
The depth this adds to the Amazing Grace album is incalculable. As powerful as the record is in its own right, the addition of this film brings it, Franklin, and the gospel genre into new clarity. As disappointing as its troubled production was, it feels right that we should get to see it today. Not only is it a reminder (as if we needed one) of Franklin’s power and a stunning capstone to her remarkable life, we’re also reminded of the power of music to move and to heal. To inspire. To transcend. Few artists could accomplish these feats like Aretha Franklin could. And while no film could ever adequately substitute the experience of a live performance, we’re blessed that this finally exists to see the light of day, continuing the shine her light for us and for the generations that come after.
Amazing Grace is now playing in select theaters.