'Amazing Grace': Aretha Franklin's Lost Concert Film Soars
Miraculously, her historic 1972 gospel show finally debuts in 2019
Run time: 1 hour 27 minutes
Stars: Aretha Franklin, C.L. Franklin, the Rev. James Cleveland
Director: Sydney Pollack
You've heard the late Aretha Franklin sing “I Say a Little Prayer,” but you've never seen her command a churchful of praying people as she does in this remarkable concert film. Offering a whole different experience than she does in soul/pop diva mode, she vividly expresses her faith and the deep anguish that caused her producer Jerry Wexler to call her “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows."
In January 1972, when she'd just racked up 11 consecutive No. 1 hits, Aretha recorded Amazing Grace live at Los Angeles’ New Bethel Church. The biggest hit album of her career, it's mostly devoted to decades-old gospel songs she grew up singing in the church of her preacher father C.L. Franklin, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. In the film you can see her daddy there at the concert, preaching, tenderly wiping sweat from her brow, and bragging, “I say with pride that ‘retha is not just my daughter, ‘retha is just a stone singer!”
The reason we're only now seeing this historic film, which is right up there in the concert-cinema pantheon with The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense, is that its director, Sydney Pollack, made an astounding blunder. He was one of the best directors in history, hot from the success of Jane Fonda's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and fated to win Oscars later. But he knew nothing about filming concerts and made the dumb-rookie mistake of not using clappers, so there was no way to synchronize the footage with the sound.
Modern technology made it possible to sync and finish Amazing Grace now. (The singer also mysteriously blocked release of the restored film, but after her 2018 death her relatives permitted it.) It remains a shambling masterpiece, informal to a fault with its spontaneous-looking assemblage of takes. But that informality fits the welcoming, nonjudgmental spirit of the occasion. And it captures a cultural moment when pop and gospel intersected to their mutual benefit — when Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” was a recent smash crossover hit, and gospel was haunting the Rolling Stones. In the film, you see Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts rocking out in the aisles.
The movie makes you feel like you're in the audience, and it's hard to resist the uplifting impact of Aretha's singing. She scarcely speaks a word, but she's preaching, all right, in songs like “Mary, Don't You Weep,” a de-secularized version of Carole King's “You've Got a Friend” mixed with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Marvin Gaye's “Wholly Holy,” and “How I Got Over.”
Aretha may not convert you to her faith when you hear her sing of a beautiful place of the soul, “We can go there, and we ain't never gonna grow old!” But for a moment, she just might make you feel immortal.