Amazingly Graced.

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.

4 comments Add yours
  1. Yes, this was my favorite album growing up and we are so blessed to have the film finally out. One point though, while yes it is true that there were issues negotiating with Franklin and subsequently her estate, the bottom line is that when Allen Elliott purchased the rights to the footage in 2007 He discovered the basic flaw that dogged the footage from square one: the audio was not in sync. Reason being is that when Sydney Pollack was shooting, starting and stopping the camera repeatedly, being the rookie that he was, he didn’t use a clapboard. Thus, unlike video, film is impossible to sync the visual with the audio if you have no reference point to start with. this was part of the reason Franklin was hesitant to have the footage released. But we have to appreciate the years of painstaknig reconstruction it took to have this film finally released. Jesus was on Elliot’s side indeed!

    1. Excellent and true point made, Eric. I was, indeed, aware of the actual technical difficulties. It was Sydney’s genius in its just barely previous genius phase. Thanks for sharing. And reading!

  2. Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful performance. I want to rush out and see it again, very soon. But when I think of this, I always wonder what would have become of the Queen of Soul if she had not broke free from Columbia Records doing those jazz ballads, do-waps, and easy listening songs and signed with Atlantic where she met Jerry Wexler, Rick Hall and the Swampers. As you describe her talent, I’d suggest that even the greatest talent needs to find the place where she can cultivate and express that talent honestly and from the heart, from the Soul! And Aretha is one of the greatest talents to ever walk this earth. Yet, it was in Muscle Shoals where she found her path, where she stopped, changed course and headed down the road to true greatness. As she said, it was a turning point in her career. To put this in perspective, watch the movie Muscle Shoals. That’s where Aretha Franklin began, in my humble opinion, started making the music that led, a few short years later, to the “Amazing” performance you describe so aptly. I believe it was in Muscle Shoals where Aretha Franklin found herself. She was blessed to have discovered the one thing she was meant to do…and we are so very lucky she did. If you liked this movie, please watch Muscle Shoals.

    1. Most definitely, the Muscle Shoals film is well worth a viewing. It’s important to note that much of what and where blues and soul music’s roots in Americana are planted come from highest concentrations of African American culture. Muscle Shoals, the Mississippi Delta, later on in Chicago. What’s further interesting to recognize is that music’s love child – rock ‘n’ roll – would not have existed without being birthed by it. Thanks for sharing the good idea of checking out Muscle Shoals.

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