Amazing Grace review – soul-shaking gospel from Aretha Franklin

A spellbinding performance by the late, great singer is captured in Sydney Pollack’s 1972 film – finally brought to the screen after a long technical and legal battle

The 1970s may have been the heyday of the rock concert film, but the genre was frequently marred by questionable performances and legal squabbles. Whether it’s Led Zeppelin going off the boil in the wrangle-ridden The Song Remains the Same or the Rolling Stones finding themselves stars of an unfolding horror movie in the Maysles’s Gimme Shelter, these movies are fraught with strife. It’s significant that the most celebrated concert film of all, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, captured the Band as they were splitting up, cementing the genre’s long-standing funereal affiliations and serving as inspiration for Rob Reiner’s nail-in-the-coffin mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.

The story of Amazing Grace, centring on Aretha Franklin’s two-night performance in 1972 which led to the biggest selling live gospel album of all time, is no less troubled. Apparently inspired by the financial success of Mike Wadleigh’s festival behemoth Woodstock, and with an eye on increasingly “synergistic” film/music/TV markets, Warners enlisted Oscar winner Sydney Pollack to direct multi-camera 16mm footage of the 29-year-old Franklin recording her next album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, with his background in drama rather than music docs, Pollack failed to use clapperboards or markers, making it virtually impossible to synch the resulting picture with the recorded sound. Not even lip readers, who were reportedly enlisted to sift through hours of silent film, could solve the problem.

Instead, the footage languished in the vaults for decades until producer Alan Elliott began working on a reconstruction using previously unavailable digital technologies. Several years after Pollack’s death in 2008, Elliott had managed to assemble a workable cut, only to have his efforts scuppered by lawsuits from Franklin claiming unauthorised appropriation of her likeness. Although she told the Detroit Free Press in 2015 that “I love the film itself”, Aretha continued to contest its release, and the legal issues have only now been resolved in the wake of the singer’s death, turning what was once a celebration into something more like a eulogy.

So, after nearly five decades, does the film stand the test of time? Hallelujah, yes! Despite being both unforgivingly overlit and tantalisingly truncated (this trim 88-minute cut abridges or omits some classic tracks), Elliott’s Lazarus-like resurrection of Pollack’s movie captures both the hive of musical activity and fervour or religious ecstasy that thronged through that church all those years ago.

I’ve often argued that cinemas – at least, the good ones – share a sacred-space status with places of worship. It’s a belief confirmed by the sight of Franklin seated at the piano for a tender rendition of Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy, or standing at the pulpit for her soul-shaking delivery of Amazing Grace. On record, that church sounds vast, yet Pollack’s footage emphasises both the compact nature of the congregation (encouraged to swell their voices for the recording) and the intimate size of the auditorium – an intimacy which merely amplifies the songs’ emotional power. No wonder the Rev James Cleveland is reduced to tears, a reaction I guarantee will be repeated in cinemas everywhere.

Watch a trailer for Amazing Grace.

You can feel the heat that sets beads of sweat running from the musician’s brows. At one point, the Rev CL Franklin steps over to mop his daughter’s face as she climbs the mountain of yet another towering performance. Studiously attentive between numbers (it’s hard to reconcile this understated Aretha with the persona cultivated elsewhere), she takes flight in song, her eyes either closed in concentration or flutteringly focused on some distant horizon, way beyond the here and now.

As Aretha’s voice transcends this world, Pollack’s crew have the more down-to-earth task of catching ever more adventurous angles, peering up through the lid of a piano or down through the ranks of the congregation. There’s a scrappy, vérité feel to the footage as the crew capture each other on camera, scuttling around in response to the gesticulations of their director. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are picked out lurking at the back of the hall, learning lessons from gospel star Clara Ward is in attendance too, a regal presence bestowing a sense of history in the making.

Best of all, however, is the sight of Alexander Hamilton conducting the Southern California Community Choir through the emotional highs and lows of the music with moves that are as joyfully expressive as the songs themselves. When a parishioner leaps to her feet, her spirit clearly moved, you’ll want to do the same. Wholy Holy indeed.


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

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