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Inside the 46-Year Journey to Bring Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ Doc to Life

In-fighting, botched filming and an aborted Michel Gondry reboot highlight laborious route to shelved film

Aretha Franklin in "Amazing Grace."

The twists and turns behind the 46-year story behind bringing Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace' documentary to life could be its own movie.

Liquid Soul

In 1990, Alan Elliott was a newly hired A&R man at Atlantic Records when he took a get-acquainted meeting with one of the label’s Mount Rushmore figures, producer Jerry Wexler. Wexler’s days with Aretha Franklin soon came up. “He said to me, ‘You heard Amazing Grace, right?’” recalls Elliott, referring to Franklin’s seminal 1972 gospel album. “I said it was my favorite record. He was a gruff fella, and he said, ‘We filmed it. We made the record and the film company made the film but fucked it up. I brought home a great record — I don’t know what those other guys did.’”

That conversation would set Elliott, who was stunned to hear of the existence of the footage, on a path to retrieve, salvage and finally unveil one of pop music’s most mysterious and talked-about concert movies. That film — Amazing Grace, a companion to Franklin’s album that was shot during the live sessions for the record — made its movie festival premiere this week in New York. “I always had faith and love for the recordings,” says Elliott. “And I accepted the awesome responsibility of this premier document of American popular music — and knowing that if I didn’t do it, it would not get done.” But the saga of the nearly 50-year-old footage could be a movie itself, with as many twists and turns as a Hollywood thriller.

“There were moments when we were like, ‘Sheesh, maybe this isn’t meant to be’” – ‘Amazing Grace’ producer Tirrell Whittley

In January 1972, Franklin was already a monumental presence in the culture when she decided to return full-on to her religious roots and record a new album in a church. Over two nights, Franklin settled into the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, accompanied by her regular band, her friend and gospel great, the Reverend James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir. Franklin’s band, which included bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie and guitarist Cornell Dupree, rehearsed for several days beforehand, although they were familiar with the repertoire and even with attending church with her. “On the road, I remember many occasions when, wherever we were playing, we would always go to church, and we would always go with her,” recalls Rainey. “She would just be a visitor, and every once in a while she would sing.”

Playing before an adoring, largely African-American crowd — along with Mick Jagger and Charile Watts, then in town to continue work on the Stones’ Exile on Main St. — Franklin rarely addressed the crowd but delivered one of her most intense performances. “She didn’t forget that she was making an album,” says her nephew, Vaughn Franklin. “She might have been trying to save her voice.” Franklin’s set included both gospel classics by Thomas Dorsey and Clara Ward along with contemporary material by Carole King (“You’ve Got a Friend”) and Marvin Gaye (“Wholy Holy” from the recently released What’s Going On). With both Franklin and Cleveland profusely perspiring due to the church’s lack of air conditioning, the songs were transformed into church-friendly epics.

Rainey says he and his bandmates were so focused on the job at hand that they barely noticed another presence in the church those two days: director Sydney Pollack alongside five cameras and his crew. Fresh off his dance-marathon drama They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Pollack had been hired to film the performances for a feature documentary. “We weren’t told anything,” Rainey says. “We were just musicians all in with her. This was Aretha and James Cleveland, and you [assume] they’re doing something for posterity.”

That summer, Atlantic released the double LP taken from the shows and it was immediately proclaimed one of Franklin’s most powerful works. Amazing Grace peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart and would eventually be certified double platinum, for 2 million sales, unheard of for a non-secular project. But the accompanying movie never arrived, and, as Wexler indicated to Elliott, was largely forgotten and completely unseen by the 1990s.

In 2007, Elliott, who also worked at DreamWorks and held other positions in the music business, made his move into the film industry and flashed back to Wexler’s comment. By way of mutual friends, he met Pollack, who had not yet been diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would take his life the following year. With Pollack’s blessing, Elliott mortgaged his Los Angeles home to buy the footage back from Warner Brothers’ film division.

After Elliott began rifling through many boxes of film reels, he found a puzzling series of items: a VHS tape with 153 semi-edited minutes of the movie (but only partial songs) and an invoice from Alexander Hamilton, who led the choir during the Franklin shows, for $200-a-week lip-reading services. “That,” Elliott recalls of the latter document, “was a tell-tale sign that things were not good.”

As Elliott soon learned — after he’d purchased the footage — the projected film had been derailed by a major technical glitch. Thanks to the absence of a clapperboard, Pollack and his crew discovered that the sound and footage had not been synced up. “They would walk in and the film was hanging on what looked like clothes lines,” Elliott says he was told. “There were thousands of pieces of film with no edit points, and they were trying to sync it up to a tape recorder.” Hence the incomplete VHS and Hamilton’s invoice: He had been hired to match up footage to music by reading people’s lips.

Eventually, Pollack gave up and the hours of footage were relegated to vaults. “Sydney couldn’t really explain it to me,” Elliott says of when he brought it up to the late director. “He was a proud man.”

Thankfully, changes in film technology allowed Elliott and his new partners — who included producer Joe Boyd, also in the church those two days — to piece together a rough cut of a concert movie. But that would only be the next of many struggles to bring Amazing Grace to the screen. Elliott approached Franklin about the long-forgotten project and his idea of a new coda: reuniting her with her surviving band and choir members for a new performance. Franklin agreed — for $1 million for one day of shooting — but after the planned coda director, Michel Gondry, left to work on Green Hornet, the idea fell apart. Franklin was also in the early stages of her own battle with pancreatic cancer.

Aretha Franklin in "Amazing Grace." Photo: Liquid Soul

Aretha Franklin in ‘Amazing Grace.’ Photo: Liquid Soul

Still hoping to release the documentary, which had been pared down to about 90 minutes of the best moments from the two nights, Elliott arranged for a private screening in 2011. When Franklin learned of it, she sued him. “It was weird,” Elliott says. “I had only shown it to family and friends to get notes. But think about this. She’s the Queen of Soul, and the movie company fucks it up and sells it to this guy and she has no idea who he is and he’s making a movie.” Elliott began negotiations with Franklin and her camp, in which she kept upping her asking price to as much as $5 million. For an added incentive,Elliott, renowned pop songwriter Mike Stiller and R&B singer-songwriter Bill Withers even wrote a song for Franklin to sing in the movie that, they were convinced, could land her an Oscar Best Song nomination.

In 2013, Elliott finally received an email with the document he’d long been in search of: a 1968 contract between Franklin, Atlantic and Warner Brothers in which she gave away her rights to film footage. (Rainey says he and the other band members were paid union scale for the sessions but not the movie — but, he adds, “In our minds, we didn’t care. We were just there for her.”) Figuring they had the appropriate legal paperwork in hand, Elliott and his producing partners were invited to show the film at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival. But hours before the screening, Franklin’s lawyer, claiming that “fair use” didn’t apply to a concert film with her likeness, obtained a court injunction to halt that plan. Planned subsequent screenings at the Toronto and Chicago film festivals were also cancelled, and Franklin won her case in court.

“Seeing the movie helped us to heal,” Franklin’s nephew Vaughn

“It was pretty deflating,” says Tirrell Whittley, a veteran marketing executive who is one of Elliott’s producing partners. “There were moments when we were like, ‘Sheesh, maybe this isn’t meant to be.’ It was difficult to come to terms with Aretha at that time. She wanted to manage her career and her brand and ensure she was always on top. She was a tough cookie.” Elliott tried again at the 2016 Telluride Festival, but once more, Franklin wouldn’t sign off in time and the film was again taken off the schedule. After that festival, Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens had alerted Elliott to Franklin’s growing health issues, and Elliott, out of respect for Franklin, put the movie on the back burner.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press in 2015, Franklin admitted to having seen a cut of the movie, thanks to Elliott, and approved of it. “It isn’t that I’m not happy about the film, because I love the film itself,” she said. “It’s just that — well, legally, I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.”

What were those problems? Few seem to know. About five years ago, Elliott had sent the film to Owens, who enjoyed it and briefly discussed it with her aunt. “She said she loved it,” Owens says, “but she didn’t expand on what in particular she didn’t like about it. It might have been technical things. She was a perfectionist, and the film people messed it up. Or maybe it was because they could never negotiate the terms. It’s pure speculation. She never discussed her business with us. Family was family and business was business.”

Elliott feels another component might have been Franklin’s own complicated, bittersweet memories of the role the movie was supposed to play in her life: to help launch her into an acting career. (Franklin was also in Los Angeles during the film’s taping to shoot a cameo for the TV series Room 222.) “My sense of it, in an amateurish psychology way, is that she was very upset about the fact that the film company had messed up this one big, huge opportunity to make her a movie star,” Elliott says.

“It took a long time to get to that happy ending” – ‘Amazing Grace’ producer Alan Elliott

Despite that fraught backstory, Owens, appointed the executor of her aunt‘s estate, invited Elliott and Whittley to Franklin’s memorial service in Detroit. About a month later, Elliott arranged for a screening of the film for about 50 members of Franklin’s family at the Charles Wright African American Museum in Detroit. Those who hadn’t yet seen the film were emotional, clapping and dancing, and even those who already had, like nephew Vaughn, son of Franklin’s late brother Vaughn Sr., were touched. “Seeing the movie helped us to heal,” says Vaughn Franklin. “You miss her calls and texts, but when you saw her on the screen, you feel like she’s still there.”

With a potential Oscar nomination in mind, Owens immediately began negotiating with Elliott to finally release Amazing Grace. “We think it’s a great film,” she says, “and if there’s a possibility of receiving Academy consideration, we wanted to see that too. You never know what films will be out next year. Strike while the iron’s hot.” The film is now jointly owned by Elliott and Franklin’s estate, and Owens says she is happy with the undisclosed terms of the new deal: “We started from the ground up, and the terms were satisfactory to both parties. You don’t expect the same level of compensation for a gospel documentary as for a biopic. You make adjustments based on what you have in front of you.”

Meanwhile, Elliott and Whittley will be showing the film in Los Angeles and New York and are currently fielding offers for distribution: a belated but upbeat coda of its own for a movie few thought would ever be seen. “It took a long time to get to that happy ending,” Elliott says. “But it’s a happy ending.”

In This Article: Aretha Franklin

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