Legendary singer Aretha Franklin is the subject of the new music documentary that almost never made it to the big screen.
In 1972, as a young star on the rise, Aretha Franklin set out to make a bold musical statement. Returning to her Gospel roots, she traveled to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, for two nights that made music history.
Together with the Southern California Community Choir, and the Reverend James Cleveland, Franklin recorded the biggest selling album of her career - Amazing Grace - in front of a live and enthusiastic congregation. A deeply personal project, Amazing Grace also became the best-selling gospel album of all time.
Franklin’s recording sessions were captured on camera in true cinéma vérité form by renowned film maker Sydney Pollack. Originally planned as a television special, the footage sat unused for years as Pollack had been unable to synch the film’s images with the audio.
Director Alan Elliott was a former Atlantic Records employee who learned about the abandoned footage in 1990. Elliott went to work to fine tune the film, and then spent nearly 28 years to bring "Amazing Grace" to the big screen.
Originally scheduled to premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, Franklin sued Elliott to block its release. Following Franklin’s death in August, Elliott and the Franklin family came to an agreement and the film made its emotionally moving debut at the Doc NYC festival in November.
Behind the camera, Pollack captures the intimacy of the two days of recording. Surprisingly, Franklin is quiet and stoic between songs, but Pollack captures the raw emotion poured into every moment of her 27-song set.
Franklin’s father, the Rev CL Franklin, joins his daughter for the second night of her performance. He takes a moment to address the congregation and shares some his fondest memories of Aretha’s childhood. During another scene in the film, he appears at Aretha’s side while she is mid-song to wipe away the sweat from her forehead – a caring gesture Pollack highlights to illustrate the close bond between father and daughter.
Other music luminaries joined the audience for Franklin’s performance, including her mentor, gospel legend Clara Ward, and a young Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.
But the real stars of the film are Aretha’s renditions of the gospel classics, especially Amazing Grace, which gave me goosebumps from the first note to the last.
"Amazing Grace" runs 87 minutes and is rated G. The film screens this weekend at Park City Film. It’s a poignant behind the music story and a must-see for fans of Franklin and anyone ready to be moved by the pure magic of the Queen of Soul. Get ready to clap and sing along, and maybe even get up and dance in the aisles of the Santy.