In 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles, 29-year old Aretha Franklin spent two nights in January recording what would become the best-selling Gospel album of all time. Those magical sessions documented by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack are nothing short of miraculous as the Queen of Soul, accompanied by the Rev. James Cleveland and Rev. Dr. Alexander Hamilton leading the Southern California Community Choir, delivers an electrifying performance that dares you to stay in your seat. “Amazing Grace” transcends documentary films, it’s a spiritual experience.
Aretha’s father, distinguished Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin, appears in the film to deliver a speech in which he praises his daughter and shares a story about going to the cleaners where a lady commented about seeing Aretha on television. When the minister asked, “How was she?” the woman replied “Okay.” She then commented “I’ll be glad when she comes back to the church” to which Franklin responded, “She never left.” Aretha sits quietly while her father addresses the congregation, almost looking embarrassed by his praise and then at the piano she bursts into a stirring rendition of “Never Grow Old” causing the audience to get on their feet, overcome by Aretha’s mighty voice.
I was moved several times by the film. It was touching to see Aretha’s father use a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his daughter’s face and neck while she sat performing on the piano and the 11-minute version of “Amazing Grace” is such an emotional moment that I was driven to tears. During the up-tempo hymn “Climbing Higher Mountains” you can’t help but stomp your feet and clap your hands as Aretha stands at the podium testifying in song as the Southern Community Choir dressed in black with shiny silver vests moves back and forth to the inspirational anthem.
For almost five decades the over 20-hours of footage that was used to put together this 89-minute documentary sat on a shelf collecting dust. When Pollack shot the film, he didn’t use a clapperboard between takes which made it virtually impossible to sync the sound with the picture. Before passing away in 2008, Pollack who became known for films “The Way We Were,” “Tootsie,” and “Out of Africa,” vowed to return to the project. Thankfully, Alan Elliot, a staff producer at Atlantic Records, worked out a deal with Aretha’s family after her death last year to release the film after acquiring the rights from Warner Bros. Using today’s digital technology, Elliot was able to restore the footage and audio leading to this remarkable film.
When Aretha decided to record the Gospel album in 1972 she had already won 5 Grammys and had 11 consecutive #1 hits with songs that included “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Baby I Love You,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” With 20 albums under her belt, Aretha decided to do something different. So with the help of legendary record producer Jerry Wexler, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee who coined the phrase “Rhythm and Blues,” Aretha went to Los Angeles choosing to record in a church rather than a studio with a live congregation which included Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts as well as Gospel legend Clara Ward who achieved great success in the 1940s and 1950s with her group The Famous Ward Singers.
“Amazing Grace” is a pure gem.
Now showing in Houston at the River Oaks Theater, AMC Willowbrook, Regal Houston Marq*E. IN Austin at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Regal Arbor 8, and Violet Crown Cinema