Amazing Grace

AMAZING GRACE. Starring Aretha Franklin in concert. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Rating G. 88min.

In this American film, Aretha Franklin records her January 1972 live album, “Amazing Grace” in concert format. The film was intended to be released in 1972 to coincide with the album, but was not released until after Franklin’s death at age 76 in 2018. Filming took place over two nights, and the album went on to become the highest-selling gospel music album of all time. It shows Aretha Franklin close to the peak of her power. The movie was awarded the “Best Non-Fiction Film” by the National Society of Film Critics in America in 2019.

The concert was filmed live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin was accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir, seated behind her, and she sings from the Church’s lectern to an audience that is predominantly African-American. Reverend James Cleveland (a famous gospel singer himself) accompanies her on the piano and also sings; Bernard Purdue plays the drums; Chuck Rainey plays the bass guitar; and Aretha’s father speaks in loving testimony of his daughter. Twenty hours of footage were shot by five 16mm-cameras over the two days to produce the film.

Three features of the movie stand out. The first is the sheer power of Aretha Franklin’s singing; the second is the effect of her singing on her audience; and the third is the quality of the film itself.

As to the first feature, the movie has been directed to reflect viewers being in a church service, and this visibly enhances the impact of Franklin’s performance. Her notes ring out crystal clear, and are especially strong in the high register. Franklin’s voice soars with the rhythm of the songs she sings. At the age of 29, Franklin uses her voice to brilliantly demonstrate her artistry as a singer of gospel music.

Relating to the second feature, the effect of Franklin’s singing on her audience is particularly  striking in the film. Some raise their hands in the air, transported by her sound; some appear to be in trance where nothing seems to matter around them but the sound of her voice; others start crying; and some seem to urge her to go deeper into the emotions which they are personally experiencing. Most of those present - including Mike Jagger, who was sitting in the back row of the audience - are visibly caught up emotionally by her singing of gospel songs such as “Amazing Grace”, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”, “Holy, Holy”, and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. The empathy which Franklin establishes communicates itself not only to those in her audience, but also to the choir members behind her, the Director of the choir (Alexander Hamilton), and those actually recording the movie. The spontaneity of responses is in all directions, and it is palpable: people cry, sway, dance, and weep, while others sit transfixed.

As to quality, this is an extraordinary documentary. It has been made with love and affection for both the music and the singer. It shows Aretha Franklin as a stunning performer. The photography is intimate, and the film captures the enormous power of black-religious music. It communicates gloriously the energy, joy, and spontaneity of gospel music. There are technical glitches, such as unintended exposure to camera-men at work, but this doesn’t interfere at all with the spontaneity of the film. The cameramen are as affected by Franklin, as the people in the audience. There is a raw authenticity in what the cinematography of this movie has captured, and its intelligent editing pushes us to focus on what we see and hear.

This is a must-see documentary about a remarkable singer The movie stands as a record of a truly great gospel performance. It is a film in which Aretha Franklin barely speaks a word, and she projects incredible artistry through her interpretation of the gospel music that she is performing. It is hard when seeing this movie, not to appreciate the impact of religious spirituality. The film projects an extraordinary commitment to religious faith and devotion, and movingly demonstrates the joy of gospel music for everyone to share.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

StudioCanal Pty. Ltd.

Released August, 2019

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