It’s testament to Aretha Franklin‘s unrivalled talent that Amazing Grace feels like watching history in the making. It begins from the moment that the concert film captures the Queen of Soul’s spellbinding entrance to Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where she recorded the seminal title album across two nights in 1972.
“She can sing anything,” Pastor James Cleveland duly tells the congregation before the recording begins.
The next 80 minutes show Franklin at the very peak of her powers – although it’s arguable that the real story unfolds off screen.
Sydney Pollack was on hand across two nights to shoot the planned documentary, but a series of issues deemed it near impossible to synchronise the image and sound, relegating the Queen of Soul to Hollywood’s archives for almost 50 years. Before Pollock’s death in 2008, he gave approval to producer Alan Elliot to start the colossal talk of reviving the footage once more and bringing his original vision to the big screen. While Aretha herself objected to the release and even launched a lawsuit to prevent its release, the film is the greatest tribute to her talents imaginable.
There’s an incredible intimacy to the whole thing as Aretha, without fanfare, begins her haunting rendition of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholy Holy’. The energy in the room is constantly palpable too, Pollock’s footage succeeds in showing the effect of her voice on the crowd – with one seen passing out as the magnitude of the occasion becomes all too much. As for the second night – there’s a knowing cameo from Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who attended the session midway through the recording of ‘Exile On Main Street’. Jagger is seen enthusiastically making his way to the front of the room – no doubt keen to hear more of the sounds that would eventually influence the record.
And as the film nears its end, the emotional clout is taken up a level as Cleveland invites Franklin’s father, the Reverend CL Franklin, to address the congregation. His address is one of fatherly pride, hailing his daughter’s talents and even mopping her brow, a moment of familial intimacy that allows us to instantly forget that we’re watching one of the greatest singers of all time.
More than a concert film, Amazing Grace is the ultimate testament to Aretha’s eternal talent.