By Owen Van Spall @ Moving Pictures Cinema
I watched Amazing Grace at the Moving Pictures Cinema in Mercato Metropolitano in Borough, London.
Here is a surefire contender for best documentary in the next Academy Awards. Aretha Franklin needs no introduction, of course, and there is plenty of footage of her performing in concerts or in a studio out there in the world. But this enthralling concert documentary not only showcases her performing to her usual incredible standard in a unique setting, but the story of how this film came to the screen makes it seem even more remarkable.
In Amazing Grace, Franklin herself barely speaks a word outside of prepping for her songs or introducing herself. That might seem odd until you consider the location in which she is performing; the New Temple Baptist Mission church in Los Angeles in 1972. This is a place of worship and Franklin comes off like she is treating it as such, she is her to give thanks, not just perform. “She came for a church service,” the late singer’s niece Sabrina Owens, who controls her estate, said to the Guardian newspaper during an interview about this event. It is also a black parish with a majority black audience, at a time when outside the civil rights battles would be raging hard across the US. It is impossible to ignore that context also; this is a place of sanctuary for African Americans where hope for the future on this world and the next can be nourished.
You know Aretha Franklin’s voice, but seeing its effect on an audience is really something. As she works her way through a series of gospel songs, which were being recorded live and would go on to form to the top-selling album of the same name which came out late in 1972, those sitting in the pews can’t restrain themselves. Tears, dancing the aisles, swooning, this is the real deal of transportive art we are seeing here. A few celebrities are in the mix; you’ll notice a very young Mick Jagger doing a poor job of trying to blend in. One audiences member earns Franklin’s awe; gospel star Clara Ward, who was a mentor to the younger singer. The backing choir behind Franklin often can’t stay in their seats either, when she reaches a particular high in her delivery they are often on their feet shouting ‘preach!’ or ‘hallelujah’. Franklin keeps a demure composure throughout all this, even when her pastor father recites a touching tribute to her during an interval, but the ebullient and charming pastor of the church and the event’s MC, James Cleveland, delivers warmth and laughs.
We are able to be witness to all this decades later because a camera crew was filming this special performance. The famous director Sydney Pollack was on site to shoot the original footage with a small team, and the confined nature of the space is made evident to us viewers in the way the camera operators often have to shoot through obstacles and at odd angles whilst trying to frame Franklin; this is a church, not a stadium with plenty of ideal shooting spots. Incredibly, despite all the work that went into capturing this one-off show, the project had to be abandoned because sound and vision had not been properly synchronised (reading up on this will give you a good education as to the importance of those clapperboards). Only decades later did digital technology finally allow this match-up to be achieved under the supervision of Alan Elliott, who now shares a directing credit with the now-deceased Pollack. Then another 10 years would pass before lingering legal issues involving the singer and the movie would be worked out (no one could locate a signed contract from Franklin to approve the film’s release, and the singer challenged the one that was found). It was, for us viewers, worth the wait.