Amazing Grace Review
Aretha Franklin had achieved phenomenal critical success and reached the pinnacle of her career by 1972 when she made the decision to return to her musical roots for her next project. The daughter of a Detroit preacher, Aretha utilised a packed New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles for a two-night live recording session.
Award winning Director Sydney Pollack was tasked with shooting the process with the aim of finding a balance between a Making-Of and intimate concert film. The resulting footage became Amazing Grace which, in turn, provided Franklin with the most successful, top-selling gospel recording of all time.
The singer, however, never wanted any of the footage revealed and had an injunction in place preventing its release until her recent passing in August 2018. Ironically though, the footage was almost lost forever as the original production was marred by error and incompetence. It was only after Sydney Pollack’s death in 2008 that music producer Alan Elliot had the opportunity to use modern editing tools to put all the fragmented pieces together in a cogent creation.
The chaos and controversy surrounding the production and eventual release of Amazing Grace pales significantly in comparison to the final product though. The film is 90 minutes of nostalgia and genius as Aretha Franklin is at her most focussed and gifted best. Supported by the genial and good-natured musical director Rev. James Cleveland and the Souther California Community Choir, Franklin serenaded the adoring congregation with her renditions of ‘Mary, Don't You Weep’, ‘What a Friend We Have In Jesus’ and the titular ‘Amazing Grace’, powerfully and emotionally stretched to an 11-minute duration. The emotion in each mesmerising chorus is palpable and raw, with the audience enthralled and spellbound, but Franklin remains controlled and perhaps even cold and aloof as her attention is absolute on the execution of each note that seem to effortlessly ascend from her lips.
On the second night of the performance, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts attended and the urban legend anecdote took hold that the Rolling Stones' album, Exile on Main St in general, and the gospel inflections of songs such as ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘Let It Loose’, specifically, was inspired by the visit in Los Angeles. Regardless of the veracity of the claims, it is undeniable that the musical influence of the album as well as that of Franklin herself was profound and significant throughout the decades after this historic performance. Artists like Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson, Natalie Cole and even Whitney Houston were often quoted as being inspirited and inspired by the unsurpassed Queen of Soul.
Amazing Grace is entirely devoid of talking-head interviews and voiceovers which is the usual approach to documentary film-making, but this more natural fly-on-the-wall approach is the perfect complement to the masterful and astute performance given by Aretha Franklin as she is given the full exposure of the centre stage and the attention and respect she demands and deserves.
There is no room available for any other extraneous side stories or angles to explore and the entire project is better for it. There are only a select few music documentaries that have attained greatness and attained legendary status, Amazing Grace is absolutely in this pantheon of musical cinema.