AMAZING Grace is essential viewing for anyone who likes watching a musical genius at work. It’s a resounding confirmation of something we knew already – that Aretha Franklin was one of the songstresses of her generation. Indeed, of all time.
A voice to send shivers down spines, lips to tremble, legs to go weak at the knees and tears to spill from eyes like waterfalls. I defy you to listen to Franklin singing Amazing Grace – or for that matter Never Grow Old – and not shed a tear or ten.
Amazing Grace is no conventional documentary. It’s anything but. There is no voiceover or little context other than a few written words at the beginning detailing Franklin’s phenomenal success before the film was shot. It is simply a snapshot of Franklin’s incredible talent based around two days of recording gospel music at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, January 1972. Recordings that formed the double album Amazing Grace which went on to become Franklin’s best ever selling album.
The footage shot was meant to be made into a film and support the launch of the album, showcasing Franklin’s extraordinary talents – and gospel roots. But the cinematic project, overseen by Stanley Pollack, got mired in technical difficulties – too much film and no synchronisation between sound and what was recorded on camera. Pollack never completed his work.
It was only the enthusiasm and tenacity of Alan Elliott, a producer at Atlantic Records, that resulted in the project being resurrected. Even then, he had to persuade Franklin that it was the right thing to do. Only after her death in August 2018 did he get the go ahead from the guardians of her estate.
The finished project is not a piece of exquisite filmmaking. Far from it. It’s fractured, messy and grainy, but that’s not the point. This is a stunning visual record of a soul and gospel icon, aged 29, moving an audience to tears and moments of religious fervour and ecstasy.
She is supported by the splendid and enthusiastic Southern California Community Choir, some of whom appear at times to be entranced by her voice. Holding it all together is Reverend James Cleveland, the choir’s founder and a long-standing friend of Franklin.
He sits at the Steinway piano, he sings (Barry White like), he preaches and he marvels at the talent before him. He shakes his head in awe and sheds occasional tears. Alongside him is musical director Reverend Doctor Alexander Hamilton gently nurturing his flock of choristers.
There are numerous magical – and poignant – moments. Mick Jagger, initially standing at the back of the audience, but towards the end occupying a front row seat. Aretha’s father, the Reverend Clarence Franklin, gently dabbing his daughter’s forehead with a handkerchief as she plays at the piano. Clara Wall, a gospel diva, dancing away in the audience.
And of course there are a selection of spine-tingling songs – Wholy Holy, You’ve Got a Friend (part gospel, part pop) and of course the extraordinary Amazing Grace.
Some 90 minutes of sublime music. Listen, absorb and leave feeling enriched.
Amazing Grace is in cinemas from May 10. The 4pm showing of Amazing Grace on Sunday 12 May at the DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury, will have a live choir introduction by the London International Gospel Choir, co-presented with We Are Parable.
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