Last night, spurred on by peg because we had discussing it and wanted to see it before it left the theaters, peg, rtb, mollyT, and I saw Amazing Grace. The movie is transcendent. Aretha is 29yo and, of course, in great voice. The minute she opens her mouth and lets out the first note you are transported. The ease with which she sings is perfection – the pop divas today force that sound out of their mouths and it sounds forced.
The movie was filmed over two nights in 1971 during Aretha Franklin’s recording sessions in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts for her gospel album. The film was never released. The director, Sydney Pollack (who looked like he was straight out of central casting as a Hollywood director in 1971), had never filmed a music documentary and they were unable to successfully sync sound to film because no clapper boards were used. The film was eventually shelved by Warner Brothers because the album was released in 1972 and time was passing when the film would be relevant. The album went on to become the best selling gospel album of all time. Pollack never gave up on the film and eventually passed it on to producer Alan Elliott, who was able to complete it and he did a wonderful job considering everything. He tried to release it in 2011 and 2015 but Aretha sued both times for appropriating her likeness without her permission. After she died, her family allowed its release. She did see the film before she died and apparently loved it.
The film was shot on 16mm, so it has a gritty 70s look – as if it was part of a movie like The French Connection. The church is hot (I’m guessing it had no air conditioning) and Aretha and (late) Rev James Cleveland sweat a lot. At one point, the Rev CL Franklin (Aretha’s father) wipes her face. The Rev Cleveland performs along with Aretha, singing a few songs and accompanying on piano for others.He does most of the talking, while Aretha just sings. Also accompanying her is the Southern California Community Choir, singing wonderful arrangements by Hamilton. The choir director, Alexander Hamilton, had worked with Pollack to sync vocals to film but only 150 minutes of that work was achieved.
The church is not large and not filled either night but there are more people on the second night. In the crowd on the second night are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts and you can see them clapping along at certain points. Eventually Jagger moves from standing in the back to one of the pews up front – and who wouldn’t want to get a closer look at Aretha singing and playing piano? The Rolling Stones were recording or about to record Exile on Main Street, probably one of their best albums.
One of the noticeable things about the film is the unsteadiness of the camera work and that it takes a while to focus. For some reason, Pollack chose not to have two or three film cameras on tripods set in the church. There was room for that – all the pews on either side of the choir were empty. The Steadicam did not come out until 1975, so you see cameramen with large belts and shoulder harnesses carrying around those very heavy cameras. There’s also a guy on a ladder being steadied by another person.
After the film the other three were talking about how surprised they were at how young Aretha looked. The first time they had seen her was the Blues Brothers movie. I was thinking that I am a very old lady. In fact, I’m sure they thought Jagger looked incredibly young also, while I was thinking that he was already showing his age, since I remember that baby-faced boy on Ed Sullivan.
You do not have to be a fan of gospel to like or love this film. It captures a moment in time brilliantly and anyone who has a soul will let Aretha take you with her no matter what.
By Carene Lydia Lopez