Review: Amazing Grace

The story goes that Aretha Franklin didn’t want this movie released. It was filmed in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church (formerly a movie theater) in Southern California in 1972 in front of a congregation and quite a few industry people (Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be seen boogeying in the back). The soundtrack was released as a double album under the same name and went on to become the biggest selling gospel album of all time. It’s not entirely clear what about the film Franklin objected to. The opening credits said something about technical difficulties and several reviews have mentioned syncing problems, but Aretha was always a bit contrarian when it came to her gifts, and likely there were elements here where she revealed things that only she understood but probably thought every viewer would pick up on. 

In any case, after she died in 2018, an independent producer acquired the rights to the footage and put it together. Ostensibly, it was directed by Sydney Pollack, who can be seen darting around with a handheld camera, but the overall film’s makeshift structure and lack of planned-through narrative shows that, in the end, the producer just wanted to get this stuff out there, and you should be very glad he did, because it will make you a believer, if not in God and the redeemer than definitely in the truth that Aretha Franklin was the greatest singer of our lifetime. 

What needs to be said up front is that Aretha decided to go back to her roots and make a full-on gospel record at the height of her fame as a pop singer, and while the camera and the audience on hand treat her as the diva she was, there’s an anxiety underlying her performance that gives it a tension that’s difficult to describe. Accompanying herself on piano she opens with Marvin Gaye’s pointedly secular, and relatively new, “Wholy Holy,” and, pulling the exceptionally prescient Southern California Community Choir behind her, shows exactly how gospel informs her pop sense. From then on she almost never engages with the congregation, and lets her mentor, Rev. James Cleveland, act as both master of ceremonies and pastor of the hour (two nights were filmed). And though the movie doesn’t follow the dramatic development of the album, it creates its own fireworks through the juxtaposition of fiercely inspired witness, technically accomplished musicianship, and the spontaneity that is the hallmark of a stirring Sunday morning assembly. At one point, the great Clara Ward, sitting in the front seat next to Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, is so moved by Aretha’s reading—just her and piano—of “Never Grow Old,” that she gets into a kind of tussle with her elderly mother, who has stumbled to the front to express her approval. During the performance of the title song, Cleveland himself, accompanying Aretha on piano, is so overcome, he has to be spelled by choirmaster Alexander Hamilton. Meanwhile, the choir in back, seated through most of the movie, falls all over themselves trying to urge Aretha on to greater heights of spiritual reckoning. 

At times, the business around Aretha almost threatens to make her presence incidental. The crowd and the other participants are agitated while she remains the eye of the storm, so to speak. If the album is more of a continuous immersion than the movie is, it’s because all the vocal drama is calculated in post-production. But as you watch her break through on one impossible note after another and the accompanying visceral reaction in the venue, the movie transcends its pokey production values. It’s not a great film; it’s not even a great concert film in the way, say, Stop Making Sense is, but it captures the essence of musical performance like no concert movie ever has. It is a genuinely transporting experience; pure emotion on screen. If you can see it in a theater with good sound (the mixing is superb) then by all means don’t miss it. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264)

Amazing Grace home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 Amazing Grace Movie LLC

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