Amazing Grace is a previously uncompleted documentary of Aretha Franklin singing gospel music. It also features the legendary Reverend James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir under the direction of a guy named Alexander Hamilton. It was recorded over two nights in January 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles.
Director Sydney Pollack had filmed several TV series episodes and movies such as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. But he “was totally inexperienced in shooting music documentary and shot without clapper boards snapping shut at the beginning of each take to help synchronize sound and picture in post-production.”
In short, Pollock never could make the film and in 2007, “dying of cancer, Pollack finally handed the documentary project over to producer and music enthusiast Alan Elliott.”
The film, even with its technical flaws, is tremendous. See Mick Jagger seated in the church audience on night two, occasionally out of focus. There’s Pollack waving at various technicians to get camera and still shots.
A couple things bugged me about the audience at the Spectrum Theater in Albany, where my wife and I viewed the film. One was the irritating folks across the aisle who talked incessantly unless there was music going on, and who turned on a flashlight so another of them could see her cellphone to turn IT on. Grrr.
The other thing I was able to recontextualize. It was the laughter in the audience when people at Aretha’s show “in the spirit.” It wasn’t necessarily even big gyrations.
For instance, Clara Ward, gospel music goddess sitting in the audience next to Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, stood up, put her hands up in the air, then fell back in her seat. This is funny?
This audience included people who obviously never went to a gospel music church service, never saw one on television. I became fascinated by what drew them to this film. Was this film providing them with a greater awareness, or are they stuck in the mocking phase?
After the film, I stood in the back waiting for my wife. As she walked out, the one other black person in the audience gave me a look I took to mean “yeesh, these people!”
As Aretha’s father said, Aretha Franklin NEVER left the church. And the Amazing Grace soundtrack album came out back in 1972. It was “the biggest selling disc of Franklin’s entire fifty-plus year recording career as well as the highest selling live gospel music album of all time.”