True/False 2019: Amazing Grace
Sydney Pollack's long-buried Aretha Franklin concert movie Amazing Grace gets resurrected; it's a glorious film, but the singer may not be its true star
The star of Amazing Grace – the long-shelved documentary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 two-day concert recordings of her (and live gospel music’s) best-selling album – may not be the Queen of Soul herself. She is on exceptional form, of course, lovingly framed by the camera, glamorous in flowing kaftans and pastel eyeshadow; her voice has rarely been more dynamic. But really – and perhaps unwittingly – Amazing Grace is a fascinating love song to the Black Church.
Through song – How I Got Over, Precious Lord, Take My Hand, and indeed, Amazing Grace – one begins to trace the history of black life in America, from slavery through Civil Rights, with the church as its bedrock. And the film reflects its deeply patriarchal structure: Franklin’s voice is the spirit that animates New Temple Missionary Baptist Church (of the legendary Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles). But she hardly speaks. Charismatic black men take up a lot of space: namely, Rev James Cleveland and Franklin’s father, revered pastor CL Franklin.
Apropos, the cameras capture a woman wildly unlike the defiant icon we had come to know; Franklin is largely introspective, smiling with some embarrassment when her father praises her. The intimacy between them (at one point he takes a towel to her face, damp with sweat and possibly tears) make for some endearing shots. But the real drama happens in the congregation. Luminaries like Clara Ward and Mick Jagger clap, dance and wail, alongside the rest of the parish; one woman is so shaken she must be restrained by ushers.
The film’s journey has been famously arduous. Then upcoming filmmaker Sydney Pollack had never directed a documentary before, and he forgot to bring his clapperboards, so the sound couldn’t sync with the images. When former music producer Alan Elliott finally (and commendably) completed the film, Franklin twice-sued him to block its release and what is now generally being hailed as one of cinema’s great concert films has only reached audiences because Franklin has died. A complicated context to be sure, but there is no denying Amazing Grace's power.
Amazing Grace screened at True/False 2019 and is released in the UK on 10 May by StudioCanal