Amazing Grace is a newly (and finally) released film of a two-night gospel music performance made by the Godmother of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin. This epic musical event was filmed in 1972. During a period when she was experiencing great commercial success (including multiple top 10 singles – simultaneously), Aretha wanted to do something different. She wanted to go back to her musical roots which were deep in gospel music. Her vocal beginnings began when, as a child, she sang in the Detroit area Baptist church where her father preached. It was there she first exercised the gift she was blessed with deep in her throat (and, I believe, much deeper in her heart and soul). As a young girl she belted out hymns in such a way that it brought to the congregations who were witness to her talent a powerful new way to experience their faith.
The film documents the performances specifically scheduled to produce a live gospel recording. A recording which when released became the best-selling gospel album of all time, and from which the film takes its name. The filming took place in the New Bethel Baptist church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Despite the bandying about of the word ‘transcendent’ in the description of the long tucked away film (the cause of this regretful absence euphemistically being stated as due to ‘technical reasons’ which translates to legal ones), in this case the hype lived up to the performance. Forty-seven years of sitting in the dark was not enough to tarnish the gleam on this most precious musical jewel.
The cinematography was nothing that would ever be able to be considered award worthy. The film is grainy, in a ‘70’s home movie kind of way. Hand-held camera movements were certainly not the beneficiaries of today’s video recording technology. But this added to and did not detract from its value. It deepened its intimacy by making you feel as if you were watching a very special and very personal home movie from Ms. Franklin’s private vault. Famed director Sidney Pollack was the eye behind the camera and his own great talent in film direction, albeit well before it was Oscar awarded, was amply evident. Still, it was not the gravity of it being a once in a lifetime event, nor the backing by the Southern California Community Choir (who, regretful of the pun, were heavenly) that brought it the aura of profound spirit it exuded. Neither was it the spot-on piano playing of the church’s reverend, Reverend James Cleveland. It was, of course, Sister Aretha.
The pinnacle moment is Aretha’s 11-minute rendition of the film and album’s namesake, Amazing Grace. Regardless of the given rendition of this gospel song, it will force even the most stone-hearted among us to feel something. In Aretha’s hands, it’s enough to make non-believers believe, the disconnected feel tethered and the lost to be found. There were many times the camera zoomed in so close to Aretha’s face that vibrations in her precious throat could almost been seen as well as heard. But it was her eyes that drew the most attention during these closeups. The fact being that much of the time they were closed. It was if Aretha had gone to a place beyond the human emoting of sound with mouth, tongue and throat to channel something much larger than she and perhaps all of us combined. And yet, as this power came forth from deep within her, her body was still. It was an instrument. As fine and as rare an instrument that ever graced – amazingly graced – the lives and times we lived while she was alive.
When the moment comes (and certainly in current times it will come) that the feeling wells up in you to reconnect to that which reminds us of our true potential as human beings, do your soul a solid by watching and feeling this movie.