Out of Ebertfest comes an arresting, incredible Aretha Franklin doc reassembled from 40-year-old Sydney Pollack footage.
Aretha Franklin doesn’t show up until five minutes into Amazing Grace. The movie makes you wait. Opening text re-introduces us to Franklin and an astounding list of accomplishments: by January 1972, Franklin had already found critical and commercial success, winning multiple Grammy awards and conquering the Billboard charts. But Franklin wasn’t through – her next project was an ambitious, cross-medium undertaking, a shift from soul to gospel we’ve been waiting more than forty years to see.
It was worth the wait.
To a certain extent, Amazing Grace exists in the shadow of the record “Amazing Grace”: the album went double platinum upon release, won Franklin another Grammy, and currently stands as the best selling Gospel album of all time. Franklin, with the help of Gospel giant Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, successfully converted the Los Angeles New Temple Missionary Baptist Church into a makeshift studio. The output of their efforts, audio recordings of two, back-to-back services, became “Amazing Grace.” The sonic results of Franklin and Cleveland’s experiment speak for themselves, and have for decades: “Amazing Grace” sounds just as brilliant today as it did in 1972.
It’s the visual component, the footage that comprises Amazing Grace, that’s been in limbo for so long. Warner Brothers hired a young director, Sydney Pollack (who had just received a Best Director Nominator for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and would later make Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie) to document Franklin’s live concert. Yet to call this event “concert” is to miss the point. Sure, Franklin is performing for an audience, but this was a series of services, a congregation in worship, a purely spiritual and musical gathering.
To his credit, Pollack seemed to understand how difficult it would be to capture the authenticity reverberating throughout the room. He and his team of cameramen utilize a varied and dynamic visual language. Amazing Grace is chock full of slow zooms in-and-out, handheld pans from choir to audience to singer, and lots of beautiful, grainy, low-angle shots. The crew frequently show up in each other’s shots, and at one point you can even see someone who looks like Pollack frantically pointing at what he wants to make sure the camera to catches.
But Pollack’s reach exceeded his grasp, and his commitment to naturalism ended up getting the better of him. Amazing Grace is not credited to Sydney Pollack. It was, rather “realized and directed” (according to the credits) by Alan Elliott. It was Elliott, a longtime Hollywood composer, who cleared the hurdle that blocked the project all these years: as shot by Pollack, it was considered impossible to synchronize the audio with the film.
Who knows how Pollack would have edited together his bevy of breathtaking frames? Regardless, what Elliott and editor Jeff Buchanan (Her) have spliced together here is nothing short of transcendent. You might assume that for Franklin, connecting with an audience – and a spiritual presence – was easy: it looks anything but. Amazing Grace illustrates the work and strain of Franklin’s process like nothing else.
When Franklin enters the space, she looks solemn, yet collected. As her performance continues, her voice bends and stretches around each word, never breaking. We see the beads of sweat conglomerate on her brow, a by-product of the massive, blinding lights set up just off camera.
Amazing Grace feels like another world: spontaneous, sweaty, off-center, and somehow perfect.
The sensibilities here are diametrically opposed to the casual, choreographed look we’ve gotten used to in our on-screen live performances. Compared to, say, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s clean, digital duet at last year’s Oscars, Amazing Grace feels like another world: spontaneous, sweaty, off-center, and somehow perfect. It is delightfully old fashioned. Is there any higher compliment?
Franklin’s musical collaborators are also in top form throughout. The Southern California Community Choir backs up, and keeps up with Franklin at every turn. It would be unreasonable to ask Aretha to host the evening while she’s delivering this once-in-a-lifetime performance, so that role is easily filled by Reverend Cleveland. He just exudes charisma – and his accompaniment on the piano isn’t bad either.
Then comes the moment when Amazing Grace entirely justifies its existence as a feature film – and produces its most memorable image. We’re at the end of the first service, just as Franklin begins her rendition of the titular hymn. Her voice breathes new life into every syllable – and Cleveland is so moved that he leaves the pulpit, and momentarily takes a seat in the audience.
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