Movie Review: ‘Amazing’ Aretha
“Amazing Grace” depicts a concert by Aretha Franklin filmed in 1972 in a Los Angeles church during the recording of a live gospel music album of the same title.
Though billed as a documentary, there’s very little commentary and no interviews with Franklin nor those associated with the project. There are some explanatory title cards at the beginning of the film.
Basically, this is a concert film of a recording studio session, or a gospel version of concert films from the era, notably, “Woodstock” (1970) or “Gimme Shelter” (1970).
“Amazing Grace” is of interest to American cultural anthropologists, popular music buffs and gospel music fans for its fly-in-amber preservation of a particular moment, or moments, in time.
Franklin was at the height of her popularily. Her version of “Respect” was a hit in 1967. The albums, ”Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now,” both released in 1968, included her hit singles, “Chain of Fools” and “Think.”
Franklin apparently wanted to get back to her gospel singing and recording roots prior to her crossover secular music success. “Amazing Grace” became the biggest-seling gospel album ever.
Those who don’t need to be reminded by Steely Dan in “Hey Nineteen” (1978) in the lyrics, “That’s ‘Retha Franklin, She don’t remember Queen of Soul,” will be fascinated by the gospel side of Franklin, who sings lead on the 11 or so songs in the film, standing stationary at a microphone behind a podium, and briefly singing and playing at the Steinway, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, the Rev. James Cleveland, piano, and a great group of recording studio session musicians.
The film’s brief commentary is by the Rev. James Cleveland in his introductions to Aretha Franklin and in a brief speech at the podium by her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin.
“Amazing Grace” was filmed on two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles, in the waning days of the counter-culture movement when anti-Vietnam War protests, Black Power, “The Whole Earth Catalogue” (1968-1972) and Earth Day (originating in 1970) morphed into the Women’s Movement, Gay Rights Advocacy, Disco and fashions and hairstyles we of a certain age would probably like to pretend we never had.
Wide-label plaid jackets, polyester dresses and Afros are much in evidence in “Amazing Grace.”
For the discerning eye, so is the film’s director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008), and two very out-of-place looking white blokes malingering uncomfortably at the entrance arches of the church, none other than “The Prince of Darkness” himself, Mick Jagger, and his cohort, Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. Jagger is later seen immitating some of the rhythmic gestures of the backing vocalists and the dancing of those in the audience moved by the spirit. Apparently, those “moves like Jagger” weren’t only inspired by James Brown.
What’s extraordinary about “Amazing Grace” is its glimpse into Franklin’s sensitive piano playing, nuanced and powerful singing and almost solemn dedication to the material. You can hear the roots of her hit version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1967), written by Gerry Coffin and Carole King, and “Freeway Of Love (In A Pink Cadillac),” from her 1985 comeback album.
Several songs make “Amazing Grace” worth the price of admission. As introduced by Cleveland, the version of “You’ve Got A Friend” (1971) by Carole King becomes a medley, combined with “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” and not the friend with fringes Grammy Award-winning hit recorded by James Taylor.
Among the most moving songs are “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “How I Got Over” and the title song, “Amazing Grace.”
In addition to Pollack, the film was, with Pollack’s blessing, later turned over to Alan Elliott (a TV and film soundtrack composer in his directorial documentary film debut).
The cinematography is up-close and sweaty, with often jittery camera, camera angles that are random, camera pan shots that are bumpy and zoom lens shots that get into focus after awhile.
That said, “Amazing Grace” is incredibly powerful despite, or maybe because of, its naïveté and rawness.
The film was not released for more than four decades because the 20 hours of 16mm footage was shot with five cameras without using clapper boards, which made the images difficult to synchronize with the audio.
The film was re-edited and planned for release in 2011 and 2015, but Aretha Franklin sued the producers. After Aretha Franklin died at age 78 in 2018, her family agreed to let the film be released.
The story of the making of “Amazing Grace” is almost as amazing as the documentary film. “Amazing Grace,” MPAA rated G; Genre: Documentary, Music; Run time: 1 hr., 29 mins. Distributed by Neon.
Credit Readers Anonymous: “Amazing Grace” director Sydney Pollack, and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, seen briefly in the church audience, are listed in the end credits.
Box Office, May 3-5: “Avengers: Endgame” broke more records with the biggest-ever second-weekend gross, $145.8 million (compared to $149.2 million for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), $619.6 million, two weeks; keeping out “The Intruder” opening at No. 2, with $11 million, one week, and “Long Shot,” true to its title, opening at No. 3, with $10 million, and “UglyDolls” with a not-so-pretty opening at No. 4, with $8.5 million. In 12 days, “Avengers: Endgame,” with $2.1 billion worldwide, became the second biggest grossing movie (after “Avatar”).
5. “Captain Marvel,” $4.2 million, $420.7 million, nine weeks. 6. “Breakthrough” dropped two places, $3.9 million, $33.2 million, three weeks. 7. “The Curse Of La Liorona” dropped four places, $3.5 million, $48.1 million, three weeks. 8. “Shazam!” dropped three places, $2.4 million, $135.1 million, five weeks. 9. “Little” dropped three places, $1.4 million, $38.5 million, four weeks. 10. ”Dumbo” dropped three places, $1.4 million, $109.7 million, six weeks. 14. “Amazing Grace” dropped two places, $367,395, $2.7 million, 22 weeks.
Unreel, May 10:
“Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” PG: Rob Letterman directs Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton and Bill Nighy in the Sci-Fi Comedy. A talking Pikachu wants to become a detective.
“The Hustle,” PG-13: Chris Addison directs Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Tim Blake Nelson and Alex Sharp in the Comedy. Two female con artists scheme against the men who wronged them.
“All Is True,” PG-13: Kenneth Branagh directs himself, Lolita Chakrabarti, Jack Colgrave Hirst and Doug Colling in the Biography Drama about the final days of playwright William Shakespeare.
“Poms,” PG-13: Zara Hayes Diane Keaton, Pam Grier, Jacki Weaver and Charlie Tahan in the Comedy about women who form a cheerleading squad at a retirement community.
“Tolkien,” PG-13: Dome Karukoski directs Lily Collins, Nicholas Hoult, Laura Donnelly and Patrick Gibson in the Biography Drama about “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” author J.R. R. Tolkien during his younger years as an orphan.
Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes