Updated: Feb 8, 2020
In January 1972, Aretha Franklin, already one of the most popular singers in the United States, recorded a gospel album live over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. This event was filmed by director Sydney Pollack, but he never completed it. Due to technical issues during the filming, it sat in unfinished form until Alan Elliott decided to try to put it together. After years of post-production and legal difficulties, Amazing Grace has been released. It succeeds as a fascinating time capsule as well as a behind the scenes look at an album being recorded and a documentary being made. As a concert, it will probably play best for those who enjoy, and get religious satisfaction from, gospel music. Nonetheless, it is still an amazing document of the power of Aretha Franklin.
Aretha’s performance was hosted by Reverend James Cleveland, a showman who knows when to play to his congregation (and the cameras) and when to get out of the way. He also plays piano and provides introductions to the songs. Backup is given by the Southern California Community Choir. The members of the congregation add even more color, clapping, dancing and feeling their faith through the music. The purpose of staging this in a live setting was to give it the feel of going to church; that effect was achieved. But the reason to see this is the movie’s star.
Aretha Franklin was a powerful presence. She is quiet, standing off to the side when others are talking. However, when the music starts, her voice takes over. It is so strong, steady and spiritual. Even I was moved by her rendition of the title song. You can tell by watching her what these two nights meant to her. The daughter of a Baptist Minister, this was her returning to her roots. Her passion is on full display in every song. The album resulting from this recording was a huge hit and you can see why. There is an honest devotion that just leaps out of her. That allows this to work as both a concert and marketing material for the Baptist Church.
While it is cool that it exists at all, Amazing Grace (88 minutes long) is not the most impressively filmed documentary. The camera crew and Pollack himself can be seen onscreen many times throughout the two nights. There are also several moments shot too close-up or too late or that are not captured clearly. Perhaps this was because of a limited amount of space inside the building. Pollack had never worked on a documentary before. Despite being a very skilled director of fiction films, it does not seem like he was entirely sure what he was doing here.
The finished product, while not showcasing his best work, is kind of neat as a making of. You can see him setting up before the show starts, moving his team into position and pointing out things he wants to make sure they catch. The production stuff we usually do not get to see is there. It is an interesting glimpse at how the sausage is made.
Amazing Grace is multiple movies in one: an Aretha Franklin concert, an evening at church, the making of a famous album, and the making of this documentary. It is not really a something for everybody situation because it is mostly just trying to be the first two things; the other two are a bonus. Since the religious aspect does not much appeal to me, the overall package was a bit of a novelty. Yet it is a valuable one which I am very glad can finally be widely seen.
3¼ out of 5
Directed by Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack