Aretha Franklin’s concert documentary, Amazing Grace, is a precious gem. It transcends time and space, even after turmoils and everything, before finally landing theatrical release almost five decades after filming. To see it in a movie theatre is a blessing, especially with the surrounding sound systems, which makes the whole experience more immersive. Calling this documentary the gem of 2019 is not an overstatement, obviously.
It’s a live session back in 1972, where Aretha Franklin will perform and record her gospel album, which eventually becomes a career-defining piece de resistance and one of the finest gospel albums ever recorded. Sydney Pollack documented the two-night sessions at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. King of Gospel, Reverend James Cleveland took an all-rounder job—emceeing, co-singing and accompanying the queen as a pianist while introducing effervescent Southern California Choir Community, which took the responsibility as backing vocals to Aretha.
The road for the theatrical release was not a smooth one; but, when it finally lands, it’s worth it. Pollack recorded the performance without clappers, which made audio-syncing virtually impossible at that time and made the whole footage useless. When Alan Elliott bought the footages sometimes later and Jeff Buchanan edited it onto becoming the final cut, Aretha did not grant her blessings for the release for unknown reasons. Only after her passing, the permission was finally granted by her family. Maybe, it’s for the best.
Aretha’s performance is genuinely graceful and you cannot help but get lumps in your throat after several songs. She will vibe perfectly with Cleveland; meanwhile, the latter will fade himself in the background to give the former a whole spotlight. There’s no intermission; there’s no backstage drama; there’s nothing but a rerun of live sessions in an open church, with the congregation cheered, jeered, and cried over Aretha. There’s barely any divider between the congregations and the performer, and you can feel it as if there are no barriers between you and the singer.
‘Old Landmark’ with James Cleveland captures the soul of the whole collaborations better than the titular album or anything we have in the documentary. Aretha can also be playful during the medley of Precious Lord, Take My Hand and ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ or during ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ with some folk atmosphere. However, we understand exactly why ‘Amazing Grace’ becomes the titular umbrella. Aretha’s rendition of the song is a subtle yet heartfelt one. You can feel the love just by listening to her improvisations.
The second night was way more emotional. The Rolling Stones’ personnel, noticeably Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, were among the audiences. Another gospel musician, Clara Ward, arrives at the church and, later on, makes a dramatic scene halfway through the performance. A surprise visit from C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, made the night more heartwarming. James Cleveland will feel overwhelmed with joy and the blessing of participating in this glorious moment. A moment later, I felt succumbed to a similar overwhelmed feeling and become as speechless as everyone in the audience.
Amazing Grace is an important documentary, which is lost but finally found. Time cannot diminish its impact. It would be as powerful and as magical as it was back in 1972. What we can do is to feel lucky.