Enthralling. That’s the simplest and best way for me to describe the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace that was released in the spring of this year. I finally was able to see it on a recent flight home from LA. Critically speaking, Variety said, “Amazing Grace can stand as an essential filmed record of what is undoubtedly one of the greatest gospel performances you’ll ever see.”
If you love Aretha – and I do – and love R&B-infused gospel music – and I do – then this movie is for you. Be ready to find yourself shiverin’ and shakin’, hand tappin’ and foot stompin’, weepin’, wailin’, soul quakin’, hand wavin’, stank face makin’, and whatever other uncontrollable body movements happen to you when you feel the spirits move. Thankfully, it’s only 85 minutes long. I couldn’t have survived much more.
The back story is this. In 1972, after fifty-leven #1 hits and annual Grammy awards, Aretha decided she wanted to go back to her roots and record a gospel album. Moreover, she wanted to record it live in a church (New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles) with her old friend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir.
Sensing an opportunity with Aretha’s career at such a high, Warner Bros. hired legendary film director Sydney Pollack to make a documentary/concert film out of the event. Unfortunately, the film was never finished due to technical difficulties syncing the audio and video. In 2010, the technical issues were resolved but Aretha sued several times to prevent the movie’s release. It was finally released after her death.
I’m sure Aretha had her reasons for preventing the movie from being shown – she was notoriously difficult to work with – but she looks and sounds glorious, and this film is a testament to her singular greatness. Recorded over two nights – and there’s some shots of Mick Jagger who attended on the second night – the original 1972 album is still the greatest selling gospel album of all time. And it’s one of my all time faves.
Seeing this music performed live? Simply enthralling.