It’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle — just some cameras, a crowd and a voice touched by God. Over two days in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin got up to sing out her gospel at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, backed by the Southern California Community Choir. A film crew was there to catch the Queen of Soul blow the roof off the place. Not to get closer to the Lord — surely He was already listening — but to testify to his glory with the black church music that helped form her and fired her faith. The live recording of the concert became Franklin’s biggest bestseller. Eight months after Franklin’s passing at the age of 76, it still is.
So why in the name of all that’s holy did it take so long to get the film of that concert into theaters? It’s a long story, mostly involving daunting technical problems. Director Sydney Pollack, more than a decade before he’d win the Oscar for Out of Africa, failed to properly synchronize image and sound, rendering the film unreleasable. And then, after another four decades, another miracle happened. Digital experts stepped in under the guidance of producer Alan Elliott, and worked out the kinks. So here’s Franklin — decked out in a caftan, pounding her piano and making a joyful noise to the heavens with image and sound in perfect harmony. It’s an unforgettable experience watching her up there, shaking the rafters with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and finding the ecstatic beauty and forgiveness in the title song. Word has it that good things are worth waiting for. This shining light of a film proves it.
You should know that Amazing Grace lacks any semblance of visual pow. There’s no special effects, no showing off. The cameras barely move. They don’t need to. The Queen is present, singing her heart out. Revolving around this supernova is Rev. James Cleveland, openly weeping while choir director Alexander Hamilton waves his hands in air to match the singer’s energy. There’s the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, wiping the sweat off his daughter’s brow. Drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Chuck Rainey are all in thrall, as is the choir itself as its members help Franklin lift her message to the heavens with “How I Got Over” and “The Old Landmark.” There’s a glimpse of the young Mick Jagger cheering his ass off in the back row. Even Pollack’s team of camera operators look awestruck as they stalk the stage to record a once-in-a-lifetime event for posterity. The result is a concert film to rank with the best, including Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
But even those masterpieces didn’t have the Queen of Soul. And here she is, barely saying a word to the congregation, knowing instinctively that her singing is all that matters when the time comes to worship and to preach. That truly is amazing grace. How sweet the sound.