Whatever discomfort a fan might feel at watching something that Aretha Franklin never wanted released in her lifetime is eradicated within minutes of Amazing Grace (2018) starting. The film, "realized" by Alan Elliott following the failure of original director Sydney Pollack to see this film done correctly, Amazing Grace (2018) sees wider release this week, with a few theaters in the D.C. area having the film on offer. The documentary of the sessions that became Aretha's Amazing Grace album is extraordinary and there is no other word to use.
Filmed over the course of two nights at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972, Amazing Grace (2018) is the best sort of rock doc. Featuring no narration, the movie serves as a simple and straightforward document of the events of those two nights, delivered in a concise, 90-minute package that's full of rich detail. Backed by the Southern California Community Choir under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, and with Reverend James Cleveland guiding things, Aretha arrives on night one to offer up what feels and looks like a church visit, albeit one featuring the greatest female vocalist this country has ever produced. If lots of what's here during night one, namely a breathtaking interpretation of the then-current "Wholy Holy" from Marvin Gaye that sees the song recast as a gospel number, feels more intimate than what's seen during night two, it speaks to Aretha's ability to modulate her approach based on audience and venue. Ms. Franklin goes from performances here that are remarkably contemplative to ones, like a joyous "How I Got Over", that seem to serve up proof of the Holy Spirit's existence in the twentieth century. The power of Amazing Grace (2018) is in how unadorned things are here, and how it feels like we just walked in and sat down in a pew to witness this too. With even the flashbacks to earlier rehearsals in the church being interspersed with footage of night one in an inauspicious way, the first half of this film subtly builds to the emotional crescendo that is night two of Aretha's performances in 1972.
The second night of this event shown in Amazing Grace (2018) is almost a concert performance, despite the spiritual content. And if there's not quite dancing in the aisles, the sight of Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts grooving in the back of the church is proof enough of the power of Franklin's voice, and the performances' success at converting any doubters of the glory of what's here. A deliberately-paced "Mary Don't You Weep" eases things forward as the second half of the film begins, but it's "Never Grow Old", with Aretha on the piano under the eyes of her father, C.L. Franklin, that transfixes. Ms. Franklin somehow imbues this Christian standard with a dose of earthiness that never feels cheap, and which results in a performance that's more real than nearly anything else I've ever seen that was labelled gospel. If the genre is being changed here right before our eyes, it's testament to Aretha's strengths as a singer that this still seems like one of her best, most natural performances ever, with moments that are so personal and deeply felt that it's likely that very few other singers could ever deliver something like this. Alongside of maybe only Al Green, Aretha understood how to move an audience through the voice the way a preacher can through words. In a film full of extraordinary moments for even a casual fan of this woman's immense career, the image of her father wiping the sweat from her brow as she delivers "Never Grow Old" on the piano is something that moves and inspires. It's a gloriously intimate, and tellingly Christian, moment in a film full of them.
Amazing Grace (2018) is essential viewing for those who revere this woman's music, and for students of African-American art in this country. Backed by some of the best players in music at the time, including Cornell Dupree on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Chuck Rainey on bass, among others, Aretha Franklin delivers what remain two of her best performances. I know that she sued to stop the original film from coming out, but this is a must see movie for anyone who cares about the progression of soul as an art form in this country. Amazing Grace (2018), with its gloriously simple and straightforward approach to documenting the two nights of Ms. Franklin's performances, offers up 90 minutes of music that consistently straddles the genres of gospel and rhythm-and-blues. With Aretha carrying the crowd to a place that feels sacred in the best sense of that word, Amazing Grace (2018) is an absolutely essential viewing experience.
Amazing Grace (2018) goes into wider release today, with numerous theaters in the Washington, D.C. area having the film on offer from today, so check your local listings.
Amazing Grace (2018) is being distributed by NEON.
[Photos and trailer courtesy of NEON]