By Liam Lacey
In 1972, Aretha Franklin decided to go back to her gospel roots, recording an album in a church with a live audience. Warner Bros. hired Sidney Pollack, following the success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to direct a film of the two-night recording session at a Los Angeles church, with multiple cameras. Pollock sent four or five cameramen, using portable 16mm cameras around but did not know how to synchronize the footage with the sound.
The double album, Amazing Grace, came out and became the biggest selling album of her half-century career while the film remained in limbo. Producer Alan Elliott acquired the footage in 1988 and, eventually, found a way of synching the sound to the footage shot by Pollack, who died in 2008. The film was ready for release in 2015, but Franklin, who said she never signed off on the film, got emergency injunctions to prevent screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. After the singer’s death last summer, Elliott finally managed to have Amazing Grace released.
Critical response to the film’s release in New York last fall, months after the singer’s death, was uniformly adulatory. No doubt, it’s pretty great to watch and listen to Franklin, 29 at the time and at the height of her powers, demonstrating her mastery in the genre of music she grew up on. The film is not, however, a great piece of filmmaking. The footage is grainy, choppy and occasionally incoherent, with cameramen shooting across at each other, capturing the director waving them around the room. (Three years ago, the Pollack estate asked that his name be removed from the film.)
The setting: the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, a dingy former movie palace converted into a house of worship in the late fifties. On the first January day of the shoot, where there are still bare seats in the audience, the masters of ceremonies and gospel legend, Reverend James Cleveland, tells the audience to treat it as a church service but also a film. That is, there may be second takes and second “Amens.” Cleveland, a four-time Grammy winner, famous for blending popular and gospel music, introduces the back-up group, the Southern California Community Choir, who sit behind the pulpit, resplendent in shiny metallic vests, under the direction of the acrobatic conductor Alexander Hamilton, before Franklin, in a white floor-length gown with shiny beading around the neck and shoulders, makes her way to the piano.
All of this feels very much of a time capsule — the Afros, and sideburns, Aretha’s regal outfits, even the ritual response of the audience/congregants, raising their hands or leaping to their feet at the vocal crescendos or breaking into bum-shaking praise dances.
While looking at older movies through the #MeToo filter can be overdone, it has some bearing here. Franklin says almost nothing between songs, which leaves men to do the talking. On the second night, Franklin’s father, the famous dapper Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, takes a turn at the pulpit, telling anecdotes about his daughter. Somewhere in the crowd, we see Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, at that point finishing up recording Exile on Main Street at an L.A. studio.
During one song, C.F. Franklin comes forward from the crowd and towels the sweat off Aretha’s face, a showy display of affection. I must admit it made me flinch. Both C.L. Franklin and Reverend James Cleveland’s careers were shadowed by allegations of sexual abuse. Franklin herself, who delivered her first child at 12, endured domestic violence at the hands of her first husband. She suffered at the hands of men.
Yet, the relationship between Franklin’s biography and her music is largely a matter of speculation. After her death last August, politicians and celebrities praised Franklin for her expression of black culture or providing a voice for civil and women’s rights, which, while legitimate, have no meaning without her astonishing voice and technique.
The setting, the awkward camera work, the grandiose introductions, all fade away here, as the crack rhythm section plays, Cleveland or Aretha begin pumping the piano and that voice lets loose. Numbers from Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy,” “You Got a Friend” leading into “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and the titular “Amazing Grace” are showcases for Franklin’s spectacular instrument.
Her face is typically impassive and she is intensely focused throughout as the voice streams out — the warm smoky lower register, the surprising phrasing, the startling changes in colour and amplitude, the repetition of phrases to build urgency, the spine-tingling runs, the “belting,” mixing upper and lower registers in a way that sounds like a cry aloud but on pitch.
Each time her voice rises to near the breaking point in the film, the crowd surges as if pulled forward on strings. Talk about emotional authenticity or soul or religious proclaiming if you must but the central fact is Aretha Franklin was an astonishing musician.
Amazing Grace. “Realized and produced” by Alan Elliott. Starring Aretha Franklin, Reverend James Cleveland, C.F. Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir. Opens April 12 in select theatres, including Toronto’s Cineplex Varsity Cinemas.