Movie Review: Amazing Grace

In 1972, Aretha Franklin was already a soul music superstar but although the singer had released 18 studio albums in 11 years, scooping up four Grammy awards along the way, her fans were wondering when she would return to her roots and release an album of gospel music. She answered their call in January of that year when she performed for two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, which was recorded for her double album, “Amazing Grace”. That album went double platinum and has become the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. It also earned Franklin another Grammy.

Back then, her record company, Warner Bros., had the idea to film those concerts, which they planned to release to the cinemas at the same time as the album’s release, and they hired Sydney Pollack to direct the project. Choosing Pollack was a bit of headscratcher in retrospect. Although his previous film, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?, picked up nine Oscar nominations and took home one award (for Best Supporting Actor Gig Young), Pollack was better known in Hollywood for directing dramas both on screen and on TV, not for making music documentaries. Indeed, it wasn’t the best decision the suits at Warner could have made because Pollack committed a rookie mistake during the filming by failing to synchronize the sound to the visuals. His error resulted in the raw footage being scrapped and the album ended up being released on its own. After sitting in a vault for 35 years, music composer Alan Elliott purchased Pollack’s footage from Warner Bros. With the help of technology that wasn’t available back in 1972, sound editor/mixer Serge Perron was able to successfully sync the audio and video together and Jeff Buchanan (HER; TV’s BARRY) then edited the footage down to 87 minutes. The finished film was set for release in 2011 but Franklin sued to block its release. Elliott tried again in 2015 to release the film but Franklin sued once again. After the singer’s death in 2018, her family agreed to have the film released.

Watching AMAZING GRACE, it’s obvious why Franklin was so adamant about keeping the film out of the public eye. It doesn’t show the singer in the most flattering way. Under Pollack’s film lights, it was clearly hot as hell inside that tiny church (I suppose the church didn’t have air conditioning back then) and it’s not long before Franklin is a sweaty mess – on both nights. Strangely though, she doesn’t seem to be too perturbed that her dripping mascara makes her look like a Tammy Faye Bakker parody and that’s what makes the movie compelling to watch. Franklin is so completely rapt in her singing that it’s hard not to feel what she’s feeling. Elliott wisely cuts away to both the audience and the members of the Southern California Community Choir throughout the performance, showing their spontaneous reactions whenever Franklin hits those sweetly spiritual notes, which she does often.

Considering Pollack and his crew shot 20 hours of footage, the film is surprisingly devoid of behind-the-scenes shots and talking head insights from people in the know. Even Franklin barely speaks. AMAZING GRACE is strictly the video version of her album. There’s little more than that, save a couple shots of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who happened to be in the audience on the second night. (The Stones were in Los Angeles at the time doing overdubs on their album, “Exile on Main St.”) It’s unvarnished Aretha, for sure, but that’s what makes it interesting viewing. And her voice is simply amazing.

AMAZING GRACE was supposed to come to Hong Kong in early April before the coronavirus shut down our cinemas. Its opening has now been pushed off to May but you don’t need to wait or chance it. The film is available now for rental and purchase on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes. It’s not a well-shot film by any stretch of the imagination but for Aretha’s fans, it really doesn’t matter.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, April 24th, 8:30 am HK time!

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