Amazing Grace was filmed over two days in 1972 in a church in Los Angeles, and it has taken almost half a century for this piece of music history to see the light of day.
When Aretha Franklin decided that she wanted to go back to her roots and record the gospel songs she sang in her youth, she ruled against recording in a studio. Instead, she gathered the Southern California Community Choir, a committed and enthusiastic congregation and her dedicated band to create the live album that would go on to become her biggest seller. To this day, ‘Amazing Grace’ remains Aretha’s highest grossing album.
Warner Bros stepped in to create a visual companion piece to the gospel album – long before Aretha’s contemporary, Beyoncé, produced her visual album ‘Lemonade’. However, the film encountered technical issues when director Sydney Pollack couldn’t get the sound and image to line up.
So, the raw footage languished unseen until producer Alan Elliott, armed with modern technology and experts, took on the project and smoothed out all the previous wrinkles. The Queen of Soul was set to be reintroduced to contemporary audiences on the silver screen.
This film is a simple one. It documents the babble of excited churchgoers eagerly awaiting the arrival of Aretha, the choreographed entrance of the Southern California Community Choir in resplendent silver vests and the Rev. James Cleveland introducing Aretha in an awe-tinged tone. Aretha appears in a white diamante-embellished kaftan and proceeds to sing her heart out. We are treated to renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, “Wholy Holy” and of course the titular song “Amazing Grace”, which leaves Rev. James Cleveland in tears and the choir erupting in joyous encouragement.
There is no attempt to hide the cameramen filming the recording – they are in full view lying on the ground, seated in pews and weaving amongst the many wires crisscrossing the floor. The quality of the footage reflects this, with shaky scenes, intense zooms and many stationary camera shots dominating the film.
Focus is placed not only on Aretha as she sings at the altar but on the enraptured crowd who raise their hands and sway to her iconic voice. Aretha’s father, Baptist minister and civil rights activist C. L. Franklin, appears on the second night of the recording and gives a short sermon before mopping the brow of his daughter as she sings at the piano. We get a sense that we are witnessing an important snapshot of history preserved in this time capsule of a film.
Aretha barely speaks more than a handful of words throughout the film, but she does not have to – it is her singing that really does the talking.
Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be seen rocking out in the back of the church. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were about to record “Exile on Main Street”, the Rolling Stones’ most overtly gospel-influenced album.