The late, great Aretha Franklin raises the roof singing gospel in Sidney Pollack’s unmissable Amazing Grace 1972 documentary.
Queen of Soulby Phil Wilson
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Aretha Franklin won many awards throughout her glittering career, but it was generally agreed that her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace was her crowning achievement. It was recorded over two nights with a live gospel audience at a church in LA. Unknown to most, the recordings were also filmed under the original direction of Sydney Pollack. They remained abandoned for thirty years because Pollack, among other problems, did not synchronise the footage with the music. Forgotten until Alan Elliott, an Atlantic music producer, took up the project in 2007 just before Pollack’s death.
Aretha wasn’t just a great voice – ‘a stone voice’ as her father put it in a little speech about her early days on the Gospel Caravan tours – but she was also a rich improviser in the best gospel tradition. Something that she managed to bring to her Atlantic pop records, making them so immediate and unique. The film incorporates many of the great elements featured on the album, but in a much more personal and gripping manner.
Aretha rarely smiles, but is immersed in delivering the album to her own high standards. There’s the very long improvised vocals of the standout tracks: ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, ‘Amazing Grace’ – where the choir reacts spontaneously as she hits the highest notes – and a very moving ‘Never Grow Old’. Other selections such as ‘The Old Landmark’ are delivered as a frantic gospel shout with audience members breaking out in joyful dancing.
The live setting has three key components – the choir, the lead singer and the audience; and it conveys that gospel dynamic and the interaction between these elements very well. The musical director James Cleveland (a family friend) also plays a more important role in the film than was apparent on the album. Not only playing much of the piano, but also creating an important continuity and depth throughout the film.
In many ways the film also reminds one of Michal Goldman’s film on the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum: A voice like Egypt. Both singers came from religious roots and took their highly ornamented styles to popular fame and acclaim.
The footage does not run chronologically in accordance with the now fully-reissued sound recordings. It opens instead with Aretha at the piano for a fine version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholy Holy’ from the second night. A gentle introduction to the intensity to come.
Despite all the later restoration work, there are fewer cinematic tricks than might have been expected. The occasional use of split-screen and an interesting take on ‘How I Got Over’, starting in rehearsal and switching seemlessly into full performance. There are other interesting sidelights for some. Clara Ward (one of her mentors) and her father, Rev C.L.Franklin, are in the front row for the second night and a couple of Rolling Stones are lounging around down the back (they were in town to mix Exile On Main Street).
But the focus of Amazing Grace is always on Aretha Franklin. An intense Aretha at times, but a great singer shown at the height of her powers.
Amazing Grace won the top festival favorite prize at Sundance Film Festival and is released on 10 May 2019 in the UK.