Let’s kick off with much-needed transparency about this review’s author: I love soul music, funk music and blues music, and I love all of the infusions that encompass the African American sound. But I dislike gospel music. In fact, I hate it. Where so many people connect with it on a deep spiritual level, it’s an experience that I simply cannot identify with, nor wish to. And with that, I admittedly tell you that I entered into Amazing Grace on the wrong foot and not among the right demographic.
Aretha Franklin’s 1972 album Amazing Grace is one of the most highly-acclaimed gospel albums of all time. Recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Church in Los Angeles, the double LP is her highest-selling record and earned her a Grammy Award. To promote its release, Warner Brothers hired acclaimed director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) to document the recording for a syndicated television broadcast. However, due to technical difficulties – including their inability to sync the audio with the video in post production thanks to Pollack’s lack of clapper boards – the film was abandoned and put on a shelf to collect dust.
In 2008 producer Alan Elliot purchased the footage and spent several years meticulously realigning all of the pieces. During this time he was sued twice by Aretha Franklin: once for appropriating her likeness without permission and again for undisclosed reasons. It wasn’t until her death in 2018 that her family gave him their blessing and he was able to complete the film for exhibition.
The result of his tenacity is a raw and insanely energised performance-film that depicts those two nights in 1972 when Aretha performed alongside Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern Californian Community Choir.
Franklin fans are in for a treat because the film is simply 87 minutes of live-performance. As Cleveland introduces her to the nave-alter he reminds his patrons (and the extended audience) that they are in a house of god, and that the performance is of a deeply religious nature. With that the tone is set and Aretha graces the stage with a surprisingly solemn demeanour. As she belts out her now-famous lineup of gospels a spell is cast upon the room. The energy of her message permeates the walls and passes through each and every soul.
This effect didn’t extend beyond the screen to the particular predominantly middle-aged white audience at the screening I attended; a number of who, alas, felt compelled to offer up an occasional giggle at some of the dramatic and theatrical responses of those before Franklin. I am very cautious as to not offend people of faith, however the type of worship depicted in the film is very foreign to me and belongs to a culture I do not identify with. And so while I was in awe of the power of Franklin’s voice, and did clearly feel its energy, I did not quite enjoy it.
Nevertheless, Amazing Grace is one for the archives and is an important document with a fascinating story behind it. I feel that it deserved to be a plot-driven documentary feature, with the performance woven throughout its narrative. With a greater understanding of the back-story (of which the film gives none) I would have been more prepared and willing to embrace the full performance. There is no mention of her opposition to the film’s release, nor the exhaustive efforts taken to restore it; two things that – for my money – could have made for a far more compelling story.
Aretha Franklin fans will marvel at the power and conviction of her unwavering performance, and those of faith will connect with the film on a personal level. The rest, however, may observe it from afar and appreciate what’s happening without actually “getting” what it’s all about. I suspect the target demographic will sound off with unanimous praise… and that alone makes it a worthy experience. See it theatrically to get the most out of it.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Amazing Grace’ opens in Australian cinemas on August 29.