A massive rookie mistake — director Sydney Pollack and his 16-millimeter film crew forgot to use a clapperboard synchronizing the sound with the image for each new take — delivered roughly 20 hours of footage captured for the 1972 Aretha Franklin concert film “Amazing Grace” into a maddening purgatory. There it stayed for nearly half a century.
But now it’s here. For a concert movie of straightforward, self-effacing technique, “Amazing Grace” delivers one of the purest, most concentrated blasts of satisfaction in a long, long time. Franklin was 29 at the time she recorded the best-selling gospel album in history. For anyone who grew up with the double album on the stereo, seeing her record her renditions of the title song, Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and so many more will bring them closer to what they already adore.
For sinful newcomers to the album, it’s 87 minutes of better late than never.
Franklin recorded with the 25-member Southern California Community Choir, inside the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, located in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts. Backed by a four-piece band, Franklin, the super-smooth Rev. James Cleveland (on screen nearly as much as Franklin) and exuberant choir director Alexander Hamilton’s singers split the session into two evenings.
The second night brought, among others, Mick Jagger (in L.A. around the time of “Exile on Main Street”) into the church. He’s seen, fleetingly, sitting in the back; Pollack and his crew can be seen in “Amazing Grace” hustling, weaving around, trying to get as close to the music and what it meant for those people, in that church, on those nights.
The close-ups say it all. Beads of sweat intermingle with Franklin’s blue eye shadow, and at times she seems to be blinking back tears. This is hard work in a place of worship; the joy it brings out in the crowd — at one point, Cleveland simply holds his head in his hands, and sobs — is the undeniable result.
The call-outs, spontaneous bursts of dance and shouts of affirmation from the choir and the audience, especially during “Amazing Grace” but throughout the entire film, serve as a glorious reminder that sometimes all a filmmaker needs to do is be there, and be awake and responsive to the talent.
On the other hand, remembering to bring a clapper would’ve been wise. After a decade or so in series television, Pollack was just coming off his breakout success with “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Warner Brothers had ideas to synergize (horrible word, I know; gets worse every year) Franklin’s gospel album, to be put out in mid-1972, with a concert film, either packaged for a TV special or, according to some reports, to fill out a theatrical double bill with “Super Fly.”
The album, as it happened, didn’t need the movie to become a smash. “Amazing Grace” finally fell together thanks to the tireless efforts of producer and music executive Alan Elliott. Near the end of her life, Franklin sued and was granted an emergency injunction against the finished film’s planned 2015 unveiling at the Telluride Film Festival. Litigation tossed the film off the rosters of other festivals around that time, including the Chicago International Film Festival. Shortly after Franklin’s death last year, Elliott came to an agreement with Franklin’s estate for the release. And here we are.
There are a hundred little stories going on in “Amazing Grace,” some unrelated to the music. Bassist Chuck Rainey told the New York Times recently that Franklin felt marginalized by her own movie, probably owing to the screen time afforded the Rev. Cleveland (her childhood mentor) and, on the second night, the big-footing presence of her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. His imposing, vaguely patronizing speech seems to turn Franklin into a meeker, compliant version of her adult self.
Even if Aretha Franklin doesn’t dominate every second of “Amazing Grace,” she’s indisputably the reason the film exists, and the reason it’s so good. Her voice could lift people straight out of their seats in jubilation; her vocal flourishes and deep readings of the simplest, most elemental lyrics remain incomparable. When she sings “my soul is satisfied,” she’s speaking for anyone listening to what she achieved here, in this Watts church with the walls painted various shades of blue, like countless prom tuxes of the era. “Satisfying” doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s a start.