Forty-seven years ago, in 1972, when Sydney Pollack filmed Aretha Franklin recording her Amazing Grace album, he did not use clapper boards. Franklin, then 29, had recently released Spirit in the Dark (1970) and Young, Gifted and Black (1972), and decided to record Amazing Grace probably because some of her critics believed that she had started straying from her gospel roots. Daughter of Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, Ms. Franklin not only decided to record an album of gospel songs that she had grown up singing, but also decided to record it in Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in front of a live audience, thereby proving that her roots were intact and nourishing one of the most magnificent musical geniuses our times have known.
Franklin’s co-producer, Jerry Wexler, had arranged for Warner Bros. to film the recording and had signed up Sydney Pollack to film the proceedings. At the end of shooting two days of Aretha Franklin singing to a swaying, dancing, clapping, and crying audience, Pollack had around twenty hours of footage shot by five 16 mm cameras that could not be synced to sound because he hadn’t used clapper boards. The editors at Warner Bros. finally gave up in frustration, while Pollock moved on to make The Way We Were; the footage continued to sit in vaults. In 1990, when Alan Elliott found a job at Atlantic Records, he met Wexler, who told him about the film Sydney Pollack shot, and therein began Elliott’s obsession with finding the tapes. In 2007, he mortgaged his house to buy the footage from Warner Bros. He then approached Aretha Franklin with a proposal to film her singing the same songs with the surviving members of the band and the choir that accompanied her, back in 1972. Franklin, in the early stages of pancreatic cancer, demanded a million dollars that was more than what Elliott could afford.
Elliott, aided by technological advancements that finally let him sync the sound in Pollack’s tapes, managed to edit the footage and produce Amazing Grace, the documentary. He tried to release the film in 2015 but Franklin’s lawyers repeatedly stopped its release. Though Franklin loved it, she insisted that only Sydney Pollack had been granted permission to use her likeness in film. Through the next few years, as Aretha Franklin’s health worsened, Elliott thought it best to let things be. After her death in 2018, Elliott was able to screen the film to her family members, and Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and executor, agreed to grant Elliott the legal clearance to release and screen the film publicly.
Elliott’s Amazing Grace brings together footage of the two days Aretha Franklin sang gospel songs in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, accompanied by her friend and legendary gospel musician Rev. James Cleveland, her band members—bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie and guitarist Cornell Dupree—and the Southern California Community Choir orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton. The audience included C.L. Franklin, gospel legend Clara Wald, and Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in town working on Exile on Main St.
Amazing Grace is not just a documentary that has been unearthed from layers and layers of history and forgetfulness, it is a document of one of the most awe-inducing performances by a musician, perhaps in the world. Minutes into the film, when Aretha Franklin walks in on the first night of her performance wearing a white kaftan and big pearl earrings, we know the title of the film is not just the name of a song she sings. It is the persona that she embodies, it is the brilliance that is evident on the faces of the choir members who find it difficult to comprehend the absolute genius of the woman they are accompanying. It is the name of the goosebumps that runs down our spine and body as Aretha Franklin breaks out into Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”
Many music critics count Amazing Grace amongst Franklin’s best albums. When Atlantic Records released the album’s double LP in the summer of 1972, it hit the seventh spot on the Billboard 200 chart. It would eventually hit two million sales and be certified double platinum, a feat previously unimaginable for an album of gospel songs. The intended film would’ve been the perfect accompaniment: people who heard the voices of the Southern California Community Choir singers would have also seen the glittery silver waistcoats over their black shirts and the way the coats reflected the light onto their joyful faces. They would’ve seen the faces of Aretha Franklin and Rev. Cleveland, profusely sweating, as they sang inside a church with no AC, and how that sweat glimmered on Franklin’s skin as if someone had blown diamond dust on her face. Listening to beautiful music can be such a complete experience in itself sometimes that the listener often forgets the immense labor that goes behind creating it. A film like this is a testament to that labor and also to the joy that engulfs the people who undertake that work.
With the stone detailing on her neckline reflecting on her beautiful face, Aretha Franklin looks radiant in her white and green outfits, her face framed by an Afro-halo. It is amazing to see a venue that is so well-lit in a bright and consistent light that the audience is able to see clearly the faces of every performer on stage, something that filmmakers struggle with even today especially when shooting subjects of color. We see Alexander Hamilton’s precise hand movements, the ecstasy that Aretha Franklin’s voice fills the room with, and the many pairs of stockinged feet that stand up and dance around, almost in a trance. In a beautiful moment, we see Aretha Franklin’s face taken over by mild embarrassment as Rev. C.L. Franklin takes to the microphone to praise her. When she sits at the piano and begins to sing, we witness the wonderful tenderness of the moment when her father dabs her sweaty face with a tissue while a painting of Jesus Christs stands as a backdrop: everything is lit so uniformly that nothing misses the eye.
Aretha Franklin could sing anything and, in the true way of mystics, could sing of a love which melts the boundaries between a religious love and a romantic one. As she sings a six-minute-long medley of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and the walls between faith and love fade away, we experience the most extraordinary and transcendental of all emotions which atheists like me find hard to describe in secular terms. As she looks like a goddess herself, we grapple with our vocabularies to describe, in Aretha Franklin’s voice, what her father calls “that indescribable something that is hard to describe,” and fail.
When she sings, it moves people: one could be the most cynical and untrusting person, and yet be touched enough to stand up and sway to her words as she praises her god and his ways. One doesn’t have to believe in any god but just trust the invisible force that makes us clap our hands, move our feet, and add our strong support to the voice in the church audience that goes, “Go, Aretha!”
And thankfully for us, the Church of St. Aretha Franklin is ever-forgiving.