Movie Review: Amazing Grace
By Matthew Huntley
April 24, 2019
Even if you go into “Amazing Grace” without any preconceived knowledge of who Aretha Franklin is, the moment she first appears in the film, walking down the incline of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, you can’t help but sense the fiery passion that brews inside her. There’s something about her poise, her grace, her modesty (she barely cracks a smile after she’s introduced) that’s haunting because we suspect these are merely superficial covers for a supreme set of pipes that will envelop us with their passion and resonance.
“Amazing Grace” is simply a wonder—an intoxicating time capsule that functions not just as a concert film but as what often feels like a live performance by one of history’s greatest singer-songwriters. The story behind it is that, in 1972, Aretha Franklin, already a bestselling artist with 20 albums under her belt, wanted to diverge from her usual soul, R&B and pop genres, and therefore chose to record a live gospel album. As a child who grew up singing gospel at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, it seemed the perfect choice.
The result was this film, which director Sydney Pollack (at the time mostly known for directing “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” with Jane Fonda) shot over the course of two consecutive nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. In the end, he had nearly 20 hours of footage.
But Pollack made one major mistake during the course of filming: he neglected to snap a clapper board at the beginning of each take, which, at the time, made it nearly impossible for the film to be synchronized with the audio, even with most experienced audio engineers applying their expertise to it. Consequently, “Amazing Grace” sat on the studio shelf for decades, but Pollack never gave up on it. Before he passed in 2007, he handed the project over to Alan Elliot, and following several legal battles with Franklin herself, Elliot was finally able to bring the sound and picture into perfect harmony and, eventually, to eager audiences. Whether Franklin would have wanted it this way we’ll never know, but what we do know, and hopefully what she does, is the film is a treasure.
Inside the mint-colored walls of the New Temple, the teddy bear-like and highly enthusiastic Reverend James Cleveland introduces Franklin to a packed congregation, who have gathered elbow-to-elbow in the modestly-sized nave. Cleveland lets the audience know they might be on camera and the songs will be part of her upcoming “Amazing Grace” live album. Cleveland also reminds the parishioners they’re in a church and they will participate in a service, though the film leaves this out and we watch as Franklin, Cleveland and The Southern California Community Choir make music that’s both magical and uplifting, whether you consider it holy, secular or otherwise.
One of the most remarkable things we get to see is just how easily Franklin transforms from quiet, unassuming church-goer to impassioned leader singer. Her change is so stark and immediate, it’s as if Franklin simply turned on a switch. On one level, it’s exhilarating because she instantly seizes us with her strength and vocal range; on another, it’ mesmerizing because she makes it look so natural and seamless. In a way, the bottomless energy and enthusiasm Franklin has for her faith, which she expresses through song, is intimidating, yet also comforting and inspirational. She’s able to strike a balance between her vigorous, overwhelming intensity and her elegant style and dignity, reminding why she was so qualified to be appointed, “The Queen of Soul.”
The most memorable scenes of “Amazing Grace” are, of course, those in which Franklin enchants us with her voice, including her renditions of “Amazing Grace” itself, which she lends a different rhythm from what we’re used to; “Precious Lord, Take My Hand / You’ve Got a Friend,” which is one of several songs where members of the audience dance, swing and vibrate their bodies almost uncontrollably; and “Never Grow Old,” which doesn’t bring the down the house so much as it raises it to another level. Seeing these performances on film is like experiencing a force of nature, and both Franklin and the audience members create it together.
While all this would have been enough, “Amazing Grace” is also alive and calming in between its music numbers. It’s padded with tender, sincere and simply happy moments that evoke the spirit of the camaraderie. Many of these are thanks to Cleveland, a soft-spoken and jolly fellow who can tickle the ivories with the best of them. At one point, he introduces Aretha’s father, Minister C. L. Franklin, who gives an extemporaneous yet still heartfelt speech about the magnificence of his daughter (he calls her a “stone singer,” although I’m still not sure what he means by this) and recalls how a woman came up to him one night in a supermarket in his hometown of Detroit. I’m paraphrasing here, but the woman said she saw Aretha on TV and noted that while she was good, she should really get back to church, to which C.L. replied, “Baby, she never left the church.”
Indeed she didn’t, because “Amazing Grace” shows an artist completely at home in her element. Aretha Franklin glows in it, and there’s something wholesome and beautiful about the way the grainy 16mm film captures her shiny hair, her squinting eyes, her white teeth, her smooth skin, all of which complement her passion. We sense this is the truest, purest, most raw version of Aretha Franklin and we can’t take our eyes off her or help but share in the spirit she generates amongst the crowd. And speaking of the crowd, we feel welcome among them, including a young Mick Jagger, who claps and bobs his head in unison with the music; and fellow gospel singer Clara Ward, who nearly faints because of all the positive praising and commotion. Franklin sings to everyone in equal measure. She’s lovely and magnetic, and she, along with Pollack and now Elliot, have bestowed upon on us a gift of a film that certainly lives up to its title.