“We are here for a religious service,” gospel legend Reverend James Cleveland reminds his audience in Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church at the start of Amazing Grace. It also happens to be a concert, and a recording session: Over two nights in 1972, Aretha Franklin, then at the height of her fame, came here to record a selection of gospel classics, the music of her youth. The result was one of the most acclaimed albums of her career — and one of the most elusive film projects of all time, full of twists and turns that would have made Orson Welles order a stiff drink.
Director Sydney Pollack documented both nights with a small army of 16 mm cameras, but apparently — and, might I add, somewhat bewilderingly — he didn’t slate the sound and picture properly, making the resulting mountain of material virtually impossible to edit. Years later, producer Alan Elliott bought the footage and, with editor Jeff Buchanan, put together this concert documentary, only to have Aretha Franklin herself sue to prevent its screening. Nobody’s quite sure why she didn’t want the movie seen. But with the singer’s recent passing and the enthusiastic consent of her family, we can now witness it. Amazing Grace premiered at DOC NYC last night, and will get a proper theatrical release starting later this year. Great news, for it is a transcendent film.
It’s also a surprisingly simple one, perhaps keeping with the unfussy circumstances. This is a modestly sized, brightly lit church, in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. (Before it was a church, it was a movie theater.) It’s not Woodstock or the Altamont Speedway or Wembley or Pompeii or Stonehenge. There aren’t any backstage shenanigans or caravans of concertgoers, and very little rock-star or diva mystique. Franklin is resplendent in her kaftans, but gives off a humble, approachable aura.
It really does feel like a church service, and that’s what gives the film so much of its power. Cleveland opens the evening with an introduction of the members of the Southern California Community Choir, who come marching slowly and carefully, in time to “We Are on Our Way,” and the air is already electric — so that by the time Franklin herself shows up, we’re ready to stand and cheer before she’s belted out a single note.
“She could have easily gone into a studio,” Cleveland tells the crowd. “She wanted to do it here.” He says all this as a way of encouraging those present not just to make enough noise to sound like an audience of thousands, but also to not be afraid to let the spirit pass through them. “We want you tonight to be a part of the session. We want you to let the folk know you’re here,” he says, with a chuckle. And they comply, naturally. Words of encouragement fly out from the crowd. Cheers erupt. Some folks dance in the aisles. The atmosphere isn’t wild or chaotic, however, but casual, supportive. It feels like a family affair, as if everyone knows each other. And they very well might: Franklin herself, the daughter of a Detroit minister, was raised in this tradition; her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, is there for the second night’s session, beaming quietly from the front row.
In between songs, Aretha is the picture of calm, stepping away from the mic as if she’s just finished answering a procedural question at a community board meeting. She confers with Reverend Cleveland, with the jovial and animated choir director Alexander Hamilton — about what, we don’t hear. But as soon as she starts singing, she’s in — eyes closed, head up, half-grins turning into flights of ecstatic joy.
All concert docs — okay, most concert docs — are basically about the journey between the work and the act, the buzz and chaos of preparation and machination that goes into the creation of something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. Amazing Grace leans away from the backstage stuff (there’s barely any of it) because it’s set in a room where the barrier between audience and performer is virtually nonexistent. We may occasionally glimpse some technicians conferring in the background. At one point, Aretha restarts a song after the first lines. We barely see her rhythm section, which was so instrumental to her music. Later, we catch Pollack frantically gesturing for his cameraman to focus on one woman who is so moved that she has to be restrained. But this hubbub is all just part of the music. Here, the theater and joy of performance aren’t so much constructed and presented as brought forth and shared. (That’s why seeing Mick Jagger in the crowd, first sitting in back and later in the front row, is so telling: Even the rock goddest of rock gods, just two years removed from the absurd, fatal spectacle of Altamont, is just a member of the audience here.)
The film’s high point, much like the album’s, is Aretha’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which begins here with a pan down from a massive painting of an impressively ripped Jesus that dominates one wall of the church. A quick, awkward zoom in the middle of a shot and the resulting blur of Aretha’s face seem to mimic — inadvertently — the tears in our eyes. The camera stays on her for much of the song — often in basic medium shot, nothing too fancy — allowing us to catch the droplets of sweat covering her face and neck, which match the tiny, shiny studs adorning her dress, giving her, briefly, an otherworldly glow.
Meanwhile, the Southern California Community Choir lets itself be carried away by the music as Aretha sings. A couple raise their hands. A couple sway. Another points and bellows. One nods his head vigorously from side to side, almost as if refusing to believe what he’s hearing. The choir, usually seated and precise during their performances, is suddenly a shivering mass of ecstatic hollers, and hoots as the music rolls to a crescendo. Reverend James Cleveland himself sits in the corner, head in his hands, speechless and undone. Later, he walks over to Aretha, and a close-up reveals him holding her hand tightly behind her back, both of them hanging on for dear life. Beneath the confidence and power, beneath all that overwhelming beauty, she’s just as overcome as the rest of us. Maybe that’s where the confidence and the power and the beauty ultimately come from. It’s enough to make you get religion.