Aretha Franklin Doc ‘Amazing Grace’ Amplifies the Power of a Gospel Classic
The new Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace — filmed in 1972 during the live recording sessions for her hit album of the same name, but not available for public viewing until today — is a marvelous 87-minute testament to Franklin’s unrivaled singing ability.
But amid the embarrassment of vocal riches, there’s a scene that stands out, a showstopper to top all showstoppers. Franklin is tackling the album’s title track with her trademark bravura, wringing every ounce of expressive potential from each note, sighing and whispering and wailing with only piano and organ for accompaniment. A member of the Southern California Community Choir is the first to lose his composure, seeming to wipe tears from his eyes.
This marks an inflection point: The energy in Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church changes, and soon the weepers in attendance seem more prevalent than the dry-eyed. Franklin continues to stoke the grateful sentiments at the core of “Amazing Grace,” heaping gravity-defying riffs on top of each other, and the Reverend James Cleveland, who serves as the evening’s MC, is the next to go. He cedes his place at the piano to assistant choir director Alexander Hamilton, throws his handkerchief over his tear-strewn face, and rocks gently back and forth like a baby. In the end, even the singer is not immune to her own gifts. Franklin eventually retreats from the microphone, sits down and begins bawling quietly.
It’s sequences like this that make the Amazing Grace documentary an indispensable visual companion to the album. The movie adds a remarkable amount of oomph to what is already among the most viscerally affecting releases in Franklin’s extensive discography — having seen the singer reduce the barrel-chested Cleveland to tears, you can’t help but hear the music differently.
In January 1972, right before she recorded Amazing Grace, Franklin was in the middle of an extraordinary streak. She had amassed 21 Top 20 hits in her first six years with Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic Records.
Her label boss liked to take credit for the singer’s decision to pivot and cut a live gospel record. “When you look back and see what are now considered the great Aretha Franklin albums of the late sixties and early seventies, they really aren’t albums at all,” Wexler told David Ritz in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “They’re compilations of singles. There was never any organizational principle. … But some years after Isaac Hayes’ breakthrough Hot Buttered Soul … at a time when Marvin Gaye was telling a complete story with his What’s Going On … I felt we needed to stir up the pot.”
However, Franklin contested this story during her own conversations with Ritz. “She had sung rhythm and blues,” he writes. “She had sung Broadway songs and folk songs. … She said that you could sing for a man for only so long. At some point, you must sing for God.”
Either way, Franklin and Wexler moved to record a live gospel album with help from Cleveland, a prolific and accomplished gospel singer, writer, pianist and arranger, and his choir. They also decided to depart from strict gospel tradition in some ways. The singer incorporated a few secular numbers, including Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and the show tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” She also brought in the core of her viciously funky band — drummer Bernard Purdie, conga player Pancho Morales, guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Chuck Rainey — to help her conjure what Cleveland described as a “slow-walk-through-the-muddy-water-to-Sunday-morning-church-service groove.” (Wexler, who had a flair for the dramatic, told Ritz he “was determined to sneak the devil’s rhythm section into church.”)
Another form of departure: Atlantic’s parent company, Warner Bros., hired the director Sydney Pollack to film the proceedings over two nights in January. Some worried that this would undercut the reverential nature of the religious services. “The one thing you don’t want is for the things with the light and the director to distract you from doing what you’re able to do,” Hamilton told Aaron Cohen, who wrote an entry about Amazing Grace in the 33 1/3 series of music books.
“[Pollack] had a camera in the Baptismal pool, behind the choir, shooting,” Hamilton continued. “Was it OK to do that? Noooo. The good sisters and brothers would have had a cow! Normally, somebody going up there with a camera, they’d be Baptized for real!”
The bigger problem with the filming, according to The Hollywood Reporter, was that Pollack failed to correctly sync sound and picture — he was left with many hours of footage but no way to align the frames properly with the audio. Amazing Grace sold well when it was released in June, eventually earning a double platinum certification, but Warner soon lost patience with trying to piece together the film. Pollack moved on to direct The Way We Were.
The project was eventually passed off to Alan Elliott, who succeeded in completing the movie, only to be sued by Franklin in both 2011 and 2015 for reasons that the singer was mostly unwilling to illuminate. “It isn’t that I’m not happy about the film, because I love the film itself,” she explained to the Detroit Free Press. “It’s just that — well, legally, I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.” The first suit was settled out of court. When asked about the fate of the second lawsuit, Sabrina Owens, a niece and executor of Franklin’s estate, told the Detroit Free Press, “We’ve gotten past all that.”
All the wrangling is blithely glossed over in the film: An on-screen note merely informs viewers, “The film for technical reasons was never finished and has never been seen.” But it’s easy to forget the documentary’s complicated creation story and overlong gestation period once the choir, dressed in shiny silver vests, starts slow-stepping into the church in time to Purdie and Rainey’s rhythm.
This is a portrait of unwavering artistic commitment. The cameramen maintain an almost claustrophobic focus on Franklin, who barely says a single word during the film’s 87-minute running time. At first she sings with her eyes closed and face impassive. The camera peeks at her around the curve of her piano or from behind a choir member’s Afro; at times it zooms in so close to Franklin’s face, it’s almost kissing the corner of her mouth. By the second song in the Thursday night performance, the singer is dripping with sweat, her earrings jiggling in time to the beat, her brow furrowed as she focuses on her task.
The visual details add new richness — and impressive evidence of real-time impact — to the material that was condensed into the Amazing Grace album. (The order of the film is different than the original LP, which edited and re-sequenced takes from the two nights.) During the second half of “Amazing Grace,” Cleveland can be seen holding tightly to Franklin, perhaps hoping to gain some of her incendiary powers through osmosis, or maybe just to keep himself upright — remember, he was buried under his own handkerchief a few minutes before.
The evidence of Franklin’s physically overwhelming singing, apparently dangerous when encountered at close range, continues to mount. The gospel great Clara Ward throws her head into her hands, stunned by the force of Franklin’s improvisations just a few feet away. Cleveland expresses his appreciation by throwing his handkerchief playfully at the singer; he misses Franklin and dings the camera lens instead. At another moment, the camera zooms to the back left corner of the church, where Mick Jagger can be spotted bopping along with the choir and clapping vigorously.
The camera captures unexpected moments of tenderness as well. Franklin’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin — in attendance the second night to praise his daughter as “a stone singer” — walks over as she sits at the piano and mops the sweat on her face with awkward force. While this is happening, the intensity of her playing and singing somehow never flags.
The Amazing Grace footage also offers additional proof, in case any was needed, of the intricacy and combustibility of Cleveland’s singers. “My reputation was built on harmonizing choirs in new and dynamic ways,” he told Ritz. “My Southern California Community Choir was known far and wide for its precise voicings. They were like a crack military unit. … No one was out of tune — ever.” A singer with a smidge less ability than Franklin would have been bulldozed by this group. Hamilton never stops moving as he commands the ensemble, repeatedly punching one or both fists into the air to draw out another fervent, impeccably harmonized interjection.
The choral arrangements are as remarkable to see as they are to hear. The group layers ad-libs in unexpected ways — one “oh yes,” then two, then three, rarely opting for simple repetition — and plays with texture: The men in the choir sing a part, then the women echo it higher on the scale, then everyone chips in for a stirring finale. To watch this at a time when the lessons of gospel are mostly absent in all wings of mainstream pop is to realize how much potential beauty is being spurned in today’s recording studios.
Most secular listeners come to Franklin through her big non-religious hits — “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and more — before moving on to her more explicitly devout work. But maybe that’s not the right away to get into her catalog. The writer-producer Babyface, who collaborated with Franklin multiple times, started out with Amazing Grace. “Sometimes you can go to church, and if you’ve got the right choir, then suddenly you want to get saved yourself,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “[Franklin’s] relationship with God was clear through the way that she sung. It made you feel, ‘well, I want to know God, if it’s that good.'” That’s certainly the effect of this film.