The transcendent ‘Amazing Grace’

By Anwen Crawford
After languishing for decades, the Aretha Franklin documentary is a revelation

Amazing Grace

By early 1972, Aretha Franklin was a bona fide recording star. The opening titles of the film Amazing Grace (in cinemas August 29) remind us that by this time she had charted a dozen top-10 hits in the United States alone, including songs as vital as “Respect”, “Chain of Fools” and “Rock Steady”. That’s “vital” in both senses: songs necessary to the advance of popular music, and also alive with a spirit – the spirit, the one that Franklin alone could command, in her singing – that was partly musical instinct but mostly musical and emotional intelligence. For a start, what other vocalist could phrase like Franklin could? She would linger for long enough over a word, or a syllable, to gather in even the most tardy of listeners and then, when you were right where she wanted you to be, she’d knock you flat.

Still, on the first of two nights of recording a live gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in the suburb of Watts, Los Angeles, in January 1972, not even Miss Franklin, First Lady of Soul, could fill the house. Maybe 300 people were in attendance, maybe less; the footage shows that rows of seats (the flip-down kind, the church having once been a cinema) were empty, at the rear.

Amazing Grace should have made the screen in the year that it was shot, and it’s clear from various remarks captured within that this was the expectation at the time. The fact that it instead ended up sitting in a Warner Bros studio vault for the better part of 40 years had to do, firstly, with technical problems, and, secondly, with Franklin’s own resistance, in her later life, to the film’s public release. Director Sydney Pollack, who shot more than 20 hours of 16mm footage – including rehearsal footage – with a small crew, somehow neglected to use clapperboards while filming, which meant that until digital editing tools became available there was no way to synchronise the audio with the visuals. (Or that’s the story on offer, though the idea of a director failing to use clapperboards feels about as likely as a bricklayer forgetting to use mortar.) In 2007, film producer Alan Elliott purchased the footage from Warner Bros, and worked to salvage it, but Franklin sued to block the film’s release in 2011, and then again in 2015. “Sometimes, in life, we can unwittingly self-sabotage when we want ultimate control,” remarked Franklin’s friend Tavis Smiley in 2016, to The New Yorker. Franklin passed away a year ago and, with the blessing of her surviving family, the film has as last gained its release.

Admirers of the live album Amazing Grace – which also came out of these two concerts and was released in 1972may be forgiven for having believed, over the years, that the audience for this occasion must have been larger, the space grander; that everything happened on a scale to suit Franklin’s own pre-eminence. After all, we see her in a snippet of rehearsal footage sail into the church wearing a full-length fur coat. And after all, the album of Amazing Grace remains the bestselling live gospel recording ever made, along with being the most commercially successful album of Franklin’s career. But the first revelation of seeing and not just hearing this two-night concert is how workaday the circumstances of its making really were.

We see the church aisles, carpeted in a drab blue, clotted with audio and lighting cables. Franklin’s five-piece band – which included drummer Bernard Purdie, bassist Chuck Rainey and guitarist Cornell Dupree, all of whom had played on “Rock Steady”, among other tracks – are squeezed into the space between the church lectern and the seating. Behind the band, facing the congregation, are two dozen or so members of the Southern California Community Choir, dressed in black and silver, ably led by assistant choir master Alexander Hamilton, who conducts like he’s pushing a river decisively uphill and then back down again. Reverend James Cleveland, choir master and himself a gospel eminence and friend of the Franklin family, explains that the reason this recording is being done live is for the sake of audience participation. “So now those of you here got to sound like about 2000,” he instructs. “Can you sound like 2000?” Pollack’s crew, and the director himself, are often visible in the background of shots, working very much on the fly.

The second and greater revelation of the film is to watch Franklin’s face as she thinks her way, moment by moment, note by note, through the songs. Her focus is scorching and its effect upon those present is something like awful, in the old way: wonder combines with devastation. She makes Cleveland break down and sob in the middle of “Amazing Grace” – he has to leave his seat at the piano. She brings her gospel elders Clara and Gertrude Ward, who both attended on the second night, near to delirium during her performance of “Never Grow Old”, as she seizes at and then wrestles with the song like Jacob going face-to-face with the angel. Word had clearly got out, by night two, that something incredible was going down; not only are the Wards in attendance but also Franklin’s father, C. L. Franklin, who was famed for both his sermons and his Civil Rights activism, and whose remarks to the congregation give a strong hint as to just where Aretha first learned to hold an audience in her palm. Watching from the back (the chairs are full up now) are Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger, who were in the middle of recording sessions for Exile On Main St. at Sunset Sound studios, in Hollywood.

The first night has the intimacy, and intensity, of something more or less private that we happen to be fortunate enough to peek in on. But the second night is charged with public expectation, and with a sense of Franklin having to meet the standard of those gathered in the front seats to watch her: Cleveland, the Wards and her father. Just before she starts in on “Never Grow Old”, C.L. Franklin pats her face down with his handkerchief. It’s a tender gesture but also a prideful one: Aretha is a treasure to be shown in the best light.

And maybe you don’t believe in God, as you watch and listen to her contend with the song’s promise of eternal life and redemption, the choir hollering her on and the congregation losing themselves, but I think it scarcely matters. The power of this music is rooted in secular history as much as in religious faith. By 1972 Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, as was Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers were in disarray. Much had been achieved by the Civil Rights movement in which the Franklin family played an active part, but conservative white America’s backlash was prolonged and violent. That history isn’t over, to this day. The song foresees the end of all this sorrow – all of these songs do. Which may be why Franklin’s face, in between the songs, is a picture of rest.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Amazing Grace

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