Amazing Grace is a showcase of one of America’s greatest talents and a rush of pure spiritual uplift. There are only so many ways to praise Franklin’s voice and they all fall short – just go and hear it for yourself.
You get both the most lovely gaze a professional camera’s ever laid upon Aretha Franklin and some of the mightiest singing she’s ever laid on you. The woman practically eulogizes herself. Don’t bother with tissues. Bring a towel.
Both in spite of and because of the dichotomy, Amazing Grace demands to be seen, preferably in a crowded, testifying theater. The movie allows us the great, rare privilege of seeing (and hearing) the Queen of Soul reclaiming her soul, by herself, for herself, for her God.
Amazing Grace will not enter the pantheon of concert films — it's somewhat shapeless as a movie, and gives little sense of emotional insight into the performer. But it does contain moments of bliss: As astonishing as the sound of Franklin's singing in 1972 remains, watching her do it is even better.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin spent 2 nites recording the titular album and it became the biggest gospel LP ever. This film documents the event. The filming is grainy and sometimes sloppy, but it doesn't matter. It's all about Aretha and her incredible ability. Backed by a wonderful choir led by James Cleveland and Alexander Hamilton, she makes every note a masterpiece. Not only is the gospel electric, this momentous event reinforces why Franklin is the greatest soul singer of our time.
I'm not a religious person so I am generally not a fan of church music, but there's just something different about it when Aretha Franklin is singing it. It's absolutely magical and when she stops singing you just want her to immediately start another song. This documentary is pretty barebones, and that's how it should be. It puts her performance in the spotlight and that's it. There's no voice over or interviews, only the performance. This is a must watch for, well, everyone...regardless of your religious perspective.
“Amazing Grace” is a revelation. That this documentary even exists is a miracle.
In January, 1972, a 29-year-old Aretha Franklin recorded a live gospel album. Over two days, with the help of Rev. James Cleveland (himself a well-known gospel singer), the Southern California Community Choir and the studio musicians who had helped make her the Queen of Soul on Atlantic Records, Aretha recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. “Amazing Grace,” the resulting album, became the best-selling gospel recording of all time.
The songs selected for the album, and indirectly the film, are an eclectic blend. They include traditional gospel hymns, a mash-up of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” with the gospel tune “Precious Lord,” Marvin **** “Wholy Holy.” With my Baptist upbringing, I was literally sobbing throughout “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Amazing Grace” – with Aretha in full flight, the choir in full-throated response and the audience in rapture. In fairness, my wife, one of the more empathic souls on the planet, was completely dry-eyed and found the film “an interesting anthropology lesson.” So your experience may vary.
Sensing that something magical was about to happen during these recording sessions, Warner Brothers studio (which owned Atlantic Records) hired director Sidney Pollack to document the proceedings. With five cameramen, he recorded every moment. The result was over twenty hours of audio recording and over 1500 video scenes, including shots of Mick Jagger standing, clapping and singing (the Stones were in LA to record “Exile on Main Street”). The structure of this documentary is quite bare-bones. There are almost no side conversations, no voiceovers for context and no interviews with any of the participants. This austere structure allows Pollack and his crew to focus on the most important task – capturing Aretha singing at the height of her powers, often in extreme close-up.
Now on to the miraculous part. Presumably because they were filming and recording a live performance, Pollack and his crew never “slated the scenes” (using the wood clapper to mark the beginning of the upcoming scene). In 1972, slating the scene was the only way to accurately sync 16mm video with the audio, which came from two different sources. After months of effort, including hiring Choir Director Alexander Hamilton for $200/week to lip-read some of the video, producers decided this problem was insurmountable. The project was abandoned and the materials shelved for decades.
In 2007, Producer Alan Elliott purchased the raw footage from Warner Brothers, unaware of the syncing problem. Fortunately, what was impossible in 1972 could by then be conquered through digitization. However, because the tapes had sat in a basement unattended for over 35 years, they first had to be “re-baked” (literally placed in an oven and heated to over 130 degrees) so they would not disintegrate while being digitally processed. The finally-synced footage was edited into the final version of the documentary by 2015. For reasons unknown, Aretha then sued to block release. Only after a screening for Franklin’s family following Aretha’s death last year did her estate eventually allow the film to be shown publicly.
So, this documentary is forty-seven years in the making, but wow, was it worth the wait. “Amazing Grace” – how sweet the sound!