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Lost concert film a soul-expanding experience

Neon</p><p>Aretha Franklin, as seen in the documentary Amazing Grace.</p></p>

Neon

Aretha Franklin, as seen in the documentary Amazing Grace.

It once was lost, but now is found. The long-delayed film record of Aretha Franklin singing for two extraordinary nights in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles has finally risen.

The visual counterpart to the Queen of Soul’s phenomenally popular live gospel album of the same name, the film footage — shot by the late Sydney Pollack — ended up buried, first by technical problems and later by legal issues. With the help of digital tech, the original sound glitches have been fixed, and — after Franklin’s death in 2018 — the project has been brought to the screen by a production team that includes director Spike Lee.

To call Amazing Grace a concert film is a pale description of a soul-expanding, whole-body experience.

To call the people assembled an audience also feels inadequate. At the start of the film, Rev. James Cleveland, the church’s leader, announces that a music concert will be recorded. But this is also a religious service, he adds. Especially on the first night, Franklin was singing for — and with — a faith congregation and an African-American community. (On the second night, after word got out, the audience shifted a bit. Mick Jagger showed up.)

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It once was lost, but now is found. The long-delayed film record of Aretha Franklin singing for two extraordinary nights in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles has finally risen.

The visual counterpart to the Queen of Soul’s phenomenally popular live gospel album of the same name, the film footage — shot by the late Sydney Pollack — ended up buried, first by technical problems and later by legal issues. With the help of digital tech, the original sound glitches have been fixed, and — after Franklin’s death in 2018 — the project has been brought to the screen by a production team that includes director Spike Lee.

To call Amazing Grace a concert film is a pale description of a soul-expanding, whole-body experience.

To call the people assembled an audience also feels inadequate. At the start of the film, Rev. James Cleveland, the church’s leader, announces that a music concert will be recorded. But this is also a religious service, he adds. Especially on the first night, Franklin was singing for — and with — a faith congregation and an African-American community. (On the second night, after word got out, the audience shifted a bit. Mick Jagger showed up.)

Franklin’s performance is central — the mighty voice, the precise but searching musicality that explores each phrase, building tension and then releasing it in a cascade of transcendent power. Everything she sings — from What a Friend We Have in Jesus to Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy — sounds both reassuringly traditional and completely fresh.

But Amazing Grace is not really about a solo act, no matter how astonishing that is. It is about Franklin’s connection to her musical and spiritual roots, from which she came and to which she joyfully returns through these songs. Cleveland, who is a charismatic presence, comes in on piano and vocals. Members of the Southern California Community Choir spontaneously rise to their feet. Congregants are swept into the music with call-and-response fervour, some people weeping, others transported with joy. "Let the folks know you’re here," the reverend says.

Franklin herself seems completely focused on the music. She barely speaks, and when her father, the big-talking Rev. C.L. Franklin, flies in from Detroit for the second night and tells stories about her to the crowd, she looks bashful, maybe even uncomfortable.

This modesty is served by a film that works despite its imperfections (or maybe even because of its imperfections). This film is not, like The Last Waltz, meticulously storyboarded and beautifully lit. It is not, like Stop Making Sense, cleverly conceived and staged.

Amazing Grace is immediate and direct and, in a very 1970s way, a little raggedy and fuzzed out. The crew members and their messy equipment often clutter up the screen. At one point, everything slows when a spilled glass of water frazzles some electrical wires. The reverend asks for "an amen for the technical difficulties."

The filmmakers aren’t showing off. They are devoted to the music. And the music is devoted to something even bigger.

When Franklin died in August 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump, that graceless man, said, "She worked for me on numerous occasions." As this moving and powerful film demonstrates, Franklin worked only for the music itself, and for God.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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