The first thing we notice while watching Amazing Grace – which documents the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (aged 29), recording her album of the same name: the most popular gospel album of all time and also Aretha’s highest-selling record – is her shy, demure demeanour in between songs. Once she opens her mouth to sing and that soaring, unmistakable voice takes flight, however, Aretha completely transforms, contorting her entire face (which sweats profusely throughout) to become a dutiful conduit for God.
Amazing Grace was filmed in 1972, over two nights, inside LA’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Watching members of the congregation pretending not to care while also looking very aware of the camera crew’s presence is entertaining in itself – and some of their fashion choices are wild! Spotting Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts – who turn up for the second day of shooting – hanging out in what must surely be an unnatural habitat for them is also a treat.
The Southern California Community Choir, clad in plain black attire accented by matching spangly silver vests, simply cannot contain themselves, rising to their feet on occasion to beat their chests or reach out Aretha’s way while hollering, “Amen!” or “SING it!” The choirmaster’s enthusiastic instruction is a hoot to watch as well.
Reverend James Cleveland, who accompanies Aretha on piano throughout, clearly loves the limelight but is also visibly moved when captured dropping his head into his hands during her flawless performance of this documentary’s namesake song. Esteemed session players Bernard Purdie, Cornell Dupree and Chuck Rainey are also on hand to perfectly execute this selection of gospel classics. Aretha’s medley of You’ve Got a Friend and Precious Lord, Take My Hand wonderfully showcases her God-given gift.
Franklin’s mentors, her dad CL Franklin and gospel singer Clara Ward, grace Aretha with their presence, and Cleveland points them out in a front-row pew before extending the mic to Aretha’s preacher father. CL Franklin says he’s been transported right back to his living room at home when Aretha was about six or seven years old. “If you wanna know the truth, she has never left the church!” he proudly exclaims, while a bashful smile spreads across Aretha’s downcast face.
Director Sydney Pollack can often be seen signalling vigorously to cameramen in the background, directing shots on the fly. Sometimes subjects come into focus rather slowly and occasional clunky edits add to this documentary’s spontaneous feel. With camera equipment in full view, it’s retro charm overload.
So why has it taken almost 50 years for this footage to see the light of day? There was no synchronisation between the film and audio when it was originally shot back in 1972. Press notes tell us that Pollack even hired lip readers and specialist editors in an attempt to solve this issue at the time, but to no avail. Thanks to new digital technology, however, synchronisation of the sound and vision of this raw footage was accomplished. Also, Aretha didn’t want this footage shown, for her own reasons, but her family granted permission for its release following her death in 2018.
There’s much happy clapping throughout from members of the on-screen congregation, and we leave with a feeling that the Holy Spirit temporarily infiltrated our lost souls. Can I get an Amen? May Aretha’s spiritual legacy live on.
In cinemas: August 29, 2019
Starring: Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, Southern California Community Choir
Directed by: Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack