PLOT The making of Aretha Franklin’s landmark gospel album, recorded live at a small church in Los Angeles.
BOTTOM LINE Sydney Pollack’s unfinished documentary, unearthed and reassembled after nearly 50 years, is a priceless gift to music fans.
In January 1972, the Rev. James Cleveland welcomed Aretha Franklin to the stage of his modest New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. “I’d like to remind you,” he said to a packed house that included his usual parishioners, a camera crew and many excited music-lovers (including a trying-to-blend-in Mick Jagger) “that this is a church. And we are here for a religious service.”
Amen to that. Alan Elliott’s “Amazing Grace” is a rapturous documentary that captures the two-night stand at New Temple Missionary that became Franklin’s album of the same name, a double-platinum, Grammy-winning hit and a landmark of its genre. That album is a transportive experience, and this visual chronicle of its creation is utterly mesmerizing. It’s a front-row seat to a once-in-a-lifetime performance with moments of pure joy and blistering power.
The film’s very existence is something of a miracle. Originally shot by the late Sydney Pollack, “Amazing Grace” suffered from sound-synchronization problems that proved insurmountable. (Pollack hired numerous editors and even lip readers, but to no avail.) Several decades later, Elliott, an Atlantic Records producer and protégé of Jerry Wexler, who had guided Franklin through her early career at the label, spearheaded a restoration project. New digital technology helped Elliott sync sound to picture and assemble the raw footage into the film it was meant to be. (His credit is not “directed by” but “realized and produced by.”)
It’s clear from the start of “Amazing Grace” that this concert is more than just a smart idea for an album. It’s a spiritual homecoming. New Temple Missionary puts on no airs for its superstar guest — the walls are peeling, the seats look ancient and the Rev. Cleveland's piano is covered in Bibles and papers — while Franklin looks as shy and humble as a child, barely saying a word throughout both shows. When she stands at the small wooden podium, eyes closed, singing a traditional hymn like “Mary Don’t You Weep” or an imaginative rearrangement of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” it’s clear she’s once again the young soloist in her father’s Detroit church. (His guest speech, included on the album, is also here.)
It’s hard to say who’s more moved by Franklin’s performance: The audience, some of whom go into paroxysms and collapse during “We Shall Never Grow Old,” or the Southern California Community Choir, whose members openly weep while mixing their glorious voices with Franklin’s. No matter how many concert films you may have seen, you have never seen one like “Amazing Grace.”