Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, released in 1972, remains to this day the highest-selling live gospel album of all time, a stunning display of raw talent, passion, and emotion. Regardless of your beliefs, or lack of them, you can’t help but have a near religious experience while listening to Franklin’s interpretation of gospel classics “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “How I Got Over,” and the showstopping title track. Recorded in front of a live audience over two nights, the record captures the sophistication of a genre that is typically overlooked (or shunned) by the mainstream. The album also captures the vital role that community plays in its creation, all coalescing around one of the greatest American artists in her prime.
The journey of the film Amazing Grace, which chronicles the recording of the album, is one that spans decades, all owing to a preventable technical error. Director Sydney Pollack was hired to film the event, but his camera crew failed to use clapboards with each new take. With so many cameras, so much footage, and no visual reference to sync the audio, the film went unfinished. Legal wrangling prevented its release, then Pollack died in 2008, leaving Alan Elliott to complete the movie. Pollack’s estate requested he not be credited as director, and Elliott did not put his name in Pollack’s place, which leaves the documentary without an author. Subsequent lawsuits over Franklin’s image kept the film on the shelf until now, eight months after her death. Intended as the chronicle of an electrifying moment in music history, it is instead, with the passing of its two chief creators, a tribute to the forgotten minutiae of great events.
G, 87 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema
The principal reason to see this film is to witness Franklin, aided by Reverend James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, and a band of musical powerhouses, in front of a crowd that elevates the experience even further. The chaos of the filmmaking itself may actually be part of the movie’s appeal. Franklin’s unwavering perfection and grace is juxtaposed with the film crew running around, adjusting cables, attempting to point the camera in the right direction as the beauty and elation of the crowd and performers is coming at them from all angles. Pollack is often shown, once even directing the cameraman away from himself. Members of the audience (including Mick Jagger) notice they are being filmed, unsure how to act until they redirect their attention to Franklin, and the cameras follow suit.
The impeccable performance and messy documentation thereof makes Amazing Grace a fascinating experience. Franklin is in her element, delivering the performance of a lifetime, while Pollack is struggling to keep everything together. The assembly of this footage after four decades was a herculean feat (maybe on par with The Other Side of the Wind), and adds another dimension to the spectacle of the concert. But even audiences that are totally unaware of this background will be treated to the best music documentary in quite a long time. The fact that Amazing Grace exists is a welcome miracle.
See it again: Chances Are
PG, 108 minutes
April 24, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
Local theater listings:
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000