Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott | US Doc 89′
By the early 1970s American ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was a already megastar with a string of hits behind her such as Chain of Fools and I Say A Little Prayer. This concert film goes back to her roots as a Gospel singer in 1972. Warner Brothers hired Sydney Pollack to direct the two-night session in the simple, half-empty Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles, accompanied on the piano by gospel star Reverend James Cleveland, the father of one of her children. But the footage never had an official release despite the massive success of the resulting double album.
Ten years after Pollack’s death in 2008, producer Alan Elliott had another go with the material and Amazing Grace is the result. Playing out as a straightforward chronological recording (with the inclusion of a scene from an earlier concert) the documentary shows Franklin channels her own spirituality into her selfless performance – there is not a one iota of guile or self-regard in her singing style or in the serious, detached way she presents herself to the audience, wearing a simple tent dress and earrings, yet pouring herself entirely into the music. She is simply a conduit for the soulful tunes to come through, as if directed by another power – sweating profusely, such is the intensity of her experience.
Up until her death in August last year, Franklin blocked the film stating Elliott had not obtained her permission to go ahead. But now it is here for all to enjoy, a collection of sometimes overwrought renditions – the most enjoyable are those accompanied by the talented band of musicians, and it’s interesting to see a young Mick Jagger enjoying himself in the audience along with Charlie Watts, and Pollack clapping along. There is also an appearance from her father Rev C L Franklin who talks about their early experience on the road.
Amazing Grace is a bit thin music-wise but what it does is shine a light on Franklins’ impressive connection with the spiritual power that lies beyond her songs, affording her a serenity and apparent protection from the corrosive affects of the fame and fortune she had achieved by that time. The only other singer who appears to have this is Stevie Wonder – and he is blind. The numbers are well-known to the Gospel crowd: Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”; “Never Grow Old,” Despite her colossal fame Aretha cuts a modest, almost compliant figure. Clearly, fame did not touch her, but her Gospel songs certainly made their mark. MT
ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE from 10 MAY 2019