“Amazing Grace” (1972 production, 2019 release). Cast: Aretha Franklin, Rev. James Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton, the Southern California Community Choir, Cornell Dupree, Kenny Luper, Poncho Morales, Bernard Purnie, Chuck Rainey, Rev C.L. Franklin, Sydney Pollack, Clara Ward, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts. Directors: Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack. Web site. Trailer.
Some things are worth waiting for until the time is right. In some cases, that may mean waiting for a very long time. But, when the wait involves seeing a legendary artist at the peak of her career, it’s possible to overlook the delay. So it is with the long-awaited release of the historic performance piece, “Amazing Grace.”
In 1972, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), the Queen of Soul, was at the top of her game. Having recorded a string of hits, such as “Chain of Fools” and Respect,” she had one of the most recognizable voices in the music business. But, when Aretha changed record labels, she also made a change in direction artistically. She decided to leave behind her signature soul and R&B recordings, opting instead to go back to her roots — gospel music.
Having grown up the daughter of Baptist minister Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha began her musical career singing gospel in her father’s church in Detroit, so she was by no means a stranger to the material. In bringing this project to life, Aretha selected an array of traditional favorites, as well as contemporary numbers reworked for a gospel format, teaming up with Rev. James Cleveland (1931-1991), widely acknowledged as the King of Gospel music. Joined by Aretha’s band and the Southern California Community Choir under the auspices of choral director Alexander Hamilton, the duo chose to record the album live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
This project was special, and several aspects set it apart from others like it. For starters, the album was recorded before a live audience over the course of two evenings, making the event as much a concert as it was a recording session. But, more significantly, the performance was to be made into a documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Sydney Pollack (1934-2008), who had recently received an Oscar nomination as best director for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) and who would later go on to direct such pictures as “Absence of Malice” (1981), “Tootsie” (1982) and “Out of Africa” (1985).
The event drew large, lively audiences, including a few familiar faces, such as Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger and gospel legend Clara Ward. And Aretha’s performance was truly outstanding, showing the breadth of her talent and versatility. She turned in brilliant performances of such selections as “Never Grow Old,” “Wholy Holy” and the album’s title cut, “Amazing Grace.” The sheer strength of the music made the LP a noteworthy release, one that would go on to become the best selling gospel album of all time.
Unfortunately, the quality of the film didn’t match the quality of the music. Technical difficulties prevented a proper synchronization between the images and sound. It proved to be a major disappointment, one that prompted Pollack to nearly pull out his hair during the picture’s post production. It caused the film’s release to be postponed, and eventually shelved, until decades later, when new technology came along to correct the deficiency. And so, in late 2018, “Amazing Grace” finally made its debut, playing at a number of film festivals before going into its current general release.
This film is indeed revelatory in many ways, by all accounts an important piece of music history, and the First Lady of Music doesn’t disappoint. However, while the picture is indeed somewhat typical of concert films of the day, its raw, spontaneous nature unfortunately comes across as somewhat dated, and even amateurish, by contemporary standards. Unfocused cinematography, choppy editing and occasional inconsistent sound quality problems hamper the flow of the film, material quite surprising from a director as accomplished as Sydney Pollack. In light of that, then, I recommend seeing this one for the Queen’s superb performance, but don’t be surprised – or disappointed – by the rest of it.
Watching a musical icon giving an iconic performance can be quite a moving experience, as evidenced by the reactions of some of this film’s audience members. Witnessing someone work her magic by freely breathing in the spirit that drives her can stir the soul of anyone present, and that indeed is what Aretha did when she sang. We were fortunate to have her among us for so many years. And, thankfully, we still have records of her artistry to remind us of what a gift she gave to us – and to the world.
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
A lifelong movie fan and longtime student of metaphysics, Brent Marchant is the award-winning author of Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies (2014), Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover’s Guide to the Law of Attraction (2014) and Third Real: Conscious Creation Goes Back to the Movies (2017), books that provide a reader-friendly look at how the practice of “conscious creation” (also known as “the law of attraction”) is illustrated through film. Brent also maintains an ongoing blog about metaphysical cinema and other self-empowerment topics through his web site. He is also Movie Correspondent for The Good Radio Network and Conscious Cinema Contributor to New Consciousness Review magazine and The HAPI Guide. His additional writing credits include contributions to Library Journal, BeliefNet, VividLife magazine, New Age News and Master Heart Magazine. Hear Brent as movie review radio correspondent on Frankiesense & More, as Cinema Scribesegment contributor to Bring Me 2 Life Radio and on New Consciousness Review radio’s Reviewers Roundtable. He’s a frequent guest on various Internet and broadcast radio shows, as well as a regular presenter at conscious creation conferences. Brent holds a B.A. in magazine journalism and history from Syracuse University.