In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded her most successful and acclaimed album, ‘Amazing Grace’ - a double album of gospel music with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Rather than recording in a studio, Franklin chose to record the album live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in front of a live congregation, in an attempt to capture the spontaneous and infectious quality she adored in gospel music. Intended as a television accompaniment to the album, director Sydney Pollack filmed the two-day recording but due to technical issues, that film was never completed. With the film ‘Amazing Grace’, director Alan Elliot and his editorial team have completed Pollack’s work, and in the process crafted an incredible cultural artifact - an uninhibited portrait of a truly great artist at work and a snapshot of the community she belonged to and inspired.
It’s inaccurate to label ‘Amazing Grace’ as a concert film, because what it depicts is far from a concert. Rather than rehearsed spit-and-polish, we see the raw act of creation as it happens, the blood and sweat and tears behind the music captured for posterity in celluloid. Franklin barely says a word, instead a bastion of focus and dedication, throwing her body and soul into her craft. She is not here to perform but to create, and watching her in that act is a wonder to behold. You feel like you’re seeing something deeply private, being let behind a curtain few could ever imagine looking behind. Cleveland acts as support and rambunctious master of ceremonies, the conduit between Franklin and the audience, and by extension us, making that connection so that Franklin can focus. Even the audience is part of the creative process, a vital texture to the album Franklin and Cleveland are crafting, lending their voices in song and exaltation. There’s no artifice with ‘Amazing Grace’, and the film feels as stirring and raw as the music itself.
Pollack had no plan while shooting, so ‘Amazing Grace’ has the chaotic kinetic immediacy of Michael Wadleigh’s seminal ‘Woodstock’ (1970), frenetically attempting to capture something fleeting as it happens, a film made very much on the run. You see Pollack and the cameramen frantically trying to keep up with what’s happening in the room, particularly the spontaneous responses from the congregation. Elliot and editor Jeff Buchanan embrace this conceit in the construction of the film. There are no talking heads, no contemporary interviews, no narration. The only narrative is what happened on the night, and the only material what was captured. It seems a cliché to say watching ‘Amazing Grace’ is like really being there, but it’s hard to imagine a more perfect documentation of such an incredible creative enterprise. Buchanan moves with the rhythm of the crowd and the music, establishing a musicality in the editing that builds in tempo and energy to its ecstatic finale. You can also feel the thrill of discovery from Elliot and his team in their construction of ‘Amazing Grace’. As with another recent act of cinematic archeology, the magnificent ‘Apollo 11’, you can’t believe the incredible images and sounds that were captured: the impossible angles, the beaming faces, and the moments of spontaneity. By keeping as out of the way as possible, Elliot delivers a far more enriching experience, one that allows the footage and the figures captured to speak for themselves as much as possible.
There’s no artifice with ‘Amazing Grace’, and the film feels as stirring and raw as the music itself.
What makes ‘Amazing Grace’ such a moving experience though is the portrait it presents - not just of Franklin, but of her community. For the congregation at New Temple Missionary, and for many African Americans in the 1970s, gospel was more than just music. It was a form of expression and hope at a time when such things were consistently denied them, replaced with racism and brutality. It spoke to the pain they felt and the dreams they carried, and gave them a way to speak to God in the purest way possible. In ‘Amazing Grace’, they see the music of their lives performed for them, not just by one of the great voices of the century, but the voice of one of their own, someone who shares their love for gospel and for God. The camera captures them in a state of overwhelmed ecstasy, a rapture that must come out, either by leaping to their feet or bursting into tears. Franklin never wavers in her task, but you see how the embrace of this community lifts her higher and higher. As she performs the title song, moving even Cleveland to step back in tears, you see the pain and hope of a people crack wide open. The album she produced is extraordinary, no question, but what this film captures is at times almost miraculous.
‘Amazing Grace’ is a document and an exhalation to the ecstasy of music, how it can affect the body and soul of those who create it and those who receive it. This raw and beautiful film goes above and beyond the concert film form, offering a window into a time past, a people in need and an artist at the height of her powers. I wanted to stand and applaud, not just for the incredible music or the superb construction, but for the relief of being able to see this footage at all. Thank God we finally can.