It’s been 47 years since the live recording and release of Aretha Franklin’s 2-million-selling gospel album Amazing Grace. Over two nights at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, director Sydney Pollack recording twenty hours of footage depicting the recording of all the tracks. As the title cards at the beginning of the documentary of the same name, in theatres currently, we are informed that it was ultimately unfinished due to “technical difficulties” — until now. Director Alan Elliott, with credit as co-director, has finished the project nearly five decades later.
Among others, Aretha Franklin herself is credited as a producer. 76 years old when she died last year (and would still be now), she is 29 in this footage, just a couple of months from turning 30. And watching it now, you don’t have to be intimately familiar with Aretha’s vast body of work — and I am not — to find yourself unsurprised that this woman was a legend. As the title cards also note, just before this recording, she had just had a run of eleven consecutive #1 pop and R&B hits.
The documentary film Amazing Grace features no interviews, and is really nothing more than a fairly standard concert film — just made by a director who, at the time, was a novice when it came to synchronizing sound and visuals with live music footage. The way it looks now, it is well shot, well edited, and suitably focused on a woman with a stunningly flawless vocal ability.
It should be noted that I write this as a longtime atheist, who is nevertheless impressed enough by this woman singing, in this case, nothing but gospel songs. This is not exactly a music genre I typically get into. But, with the Southern California Community Choir behind her, the performances are generally amazing. This in spite of the choir often singing while seated, which I found a bit mystifying.
Aretha’s parents attended on the second night — as did Mick Jagger, who is seen rocking out a couple of times in the audience. Her father, a minister, gets up to speak a few words near the end of the film. Aretha herself has a poised, regal quality to her, even in some seriously dated outfits: On the first night, she wears a semi-billowy jumpsuit that makes her look somewhat like a rhinestoned flying squirrel. The second night, she wears a white and green paisley caftan. In just a couple of instances the footage cuts to her in a brightly colored pantsuit with a red jacket draped over her shoulders; this is only slightly distracting, and presumably just a bit of rehearsal footage.
For the two nights of the performances, they fill the large church audience, filled with people “moved by the spirit.” Reverend James Cleveland, who does a bit of singing with Aretha throughout, encourages enthusiasm in the crowd for the recording when he introduces her. Watching Aretha Franklin sing these songs, I found myself wondering how many takes she typically needed to cut tracks for studio albums. Every singing performance here, done live, is of studio quality.
There is no narrative, per se — Amazing Grace is simply a record of the recording of a live gospel album. But it’s not just any album, and it’s not just any singer. And her performance of the title track, a bit over halfway through the film’s 87-minute run time, is a genuine stunner. This is a showcase for a woman for whom “amazing” is not hyperbole, nor is “grace.”