Aretha Franklin Didn’t Want You to See This Movie. But You Must.
“Amazing Grace” is the 46-year-old making-of documentary Aretha Franklin didn’t want you to see.
Well, she had conditions for you to be able to see it. They were idiosyncratic, comically tough to satisfy and mostly had to do with money. (She sued over the years to stop the movie’s release.) So the footage of the 1972 live recording of her best album (and one of the greatest albums, period) just kind of sat there until a team led by the producer and onetime music executive Alan Elliott spent years turning it into a film.
Franklin, of course, died in August, and now, magically, we have the movie, and the movie is an event. People in Manhattan lined up around the block on Monday night for its last-minute unveiling (two screenings were announced the Friday before as part of the DOC NYC film festival). And whatever qualms one might have about disobeying the Queen of Soul, clamoring to see this movie never feels like an act of disrespect. It feels like an act of worship and a trip to the moon.
We’d gathered Monday, with the Franklin family’s blessing, to behold a trove of all kinds of genius — physical, musical, oratorical, sartorial, tonsorial, metaphysical — the most staggering genius, of course, being Franklin’s. She decided to record “Amazing Grace” at the height of her success, aware that some people — church people — felt that she’d turned her back on her gospel roots, that she’d dyed them pop.
So for two nights in Los Angeles, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Franklin tended those roots with one of the most astounding performances anybody’s ever given of anything. Her longtime co-producer, Jerry Wexler, arranged for Warner Bros. to film both nights, and hired Sydney Pollack to direct just before he became the Sydney Pollack. What you experience in the finished result is a kind of glorious rawness. Scattered among the midsize Southern California Community Choir, four-piece band and awed congregants are equipment, wires and white guys with movie cameras. The lighting is bright enough to banish most shadows. (I don’t know that any color movie by a white director had ever lit this much black skin with such care and consistency.) The editing challenge here appears to have been enviable: a haystack with an abundance of needles. The use of a split-screen two or three times profoundly changes the pace and connects disparate parts of the house. And the sound mix is galvanizingly clear.
The first night proceeds with a kind of formal chaos (you try filming this many people catching the spirit); the second erupts in its human equivalent. And at the center of it all is Franklin, who performs at the piano, the dais and, at one point, unforgettably, a chair. She wears a sparkled pearl-white caftan on Night One and a somehow more regal spearmint paisley gown the next. An Afro crowns her head for both. She wasn’t just at the height of her vocal powers on those two days. She was at the apex of her musical imagination. You know it from the opening number, which turns Marvin Gaye’s year-old “Wholy Holy” into a hymn of fervor and stardust.
It doesn’t matter how much time you’ve spent with “Amazing Grace” the album. No suitable preparation exists for the experience of witnessing its recording. Some of that is structural. On the album, the songs are sequenced in a different, more dramatic order. The movie’s drama comes from seeing them live, breathe and smolder — seeing what they do to the audience. On the album, you can hear people rocked by the arrangement and performance of these songs. You can hear the exhortations of “Go, Aretha!” You can hear that the Southern California Community Choir might be one of the mightiest collections of singers ever assembled.
But you can’t see the shiny silver vests they wear with their black shirts and pants, and how utterly moved they are by the woman they’re supporting. Nor can you see the exuberant geometry with which the choir director Alexander Hamilton instructs them. You can’t see how, when Franklin’s singing blasts through the rafters during the title number, the choir leaps up and loses it, the way the bench explodes after a basketball player invents a sick dunk or the dugout swarms the field after a particularly opportune grand slam.
I have never liked the expression “everybody is a star.” Everybody isn’t. I’ll make an exception for this movie, though, because everybody in it is — from the gospel powerhouse (and seasoned ham) the Rev. James Cleveland to the hypnotically inscrutable front-row reactions of Franklin’s idol, the gospel god Clara Ward, to the folks in the aisles who don’t just cut a rug, they make a whole rug salad. Franklin herself often seems modest, girlish (she was 29 at the time), never more so than when she’s being praised by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. She retains her composure through the entire affair. Not even a spiritual ruckus that breaks out toward the end of Night Two can disturb the hold the music has over her. Both nights, she’s covered in perspiration. Yet so strong are her sublimation abilities that the beads of sweat appear to bejewel her.
It’s worth noting that, before it became a church, New Temple Missionary used to be a different house of worship: It used to be a movie theater. (There’s a painting of Jesus hung where the screen probably was.) So it feels more than right that this album was recorded and filmed there. It’s also worth noting that even though this movie has a weeklong run at Film Forum starting Dec. 7, it has no distributor yet. It needs one. Everybody deserves to have the revelation it offers — and the emotional exercise. Everybody deserves to have Aretha Franklin take them to the moon.
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