What a friend we have in Aretha: a long-delayed concert film blessedly hits the screen.
Amazing Grace, realized and produced by Alan Elliott, Film Forum,
209 West Houston Street, New York City, December 7–13, 2018
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Aretha Franklin’s voice—and its effect on the listener—is so enormous that it is nearly ineffable. Words are too small, too inadequate to explain its power. The best description I’ve read of her matchless interpretation of songs, whether sacred or profane, comes from her younger sister, Carolyn, who along with sibling Erma, the oldest of the renowned Reverend C. L. Franklin’s daughters, was also a singer (Erma and Carolyn provided background vocals on some of Aretha’s biggest hits, like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools”). In an interview with David Ritz, author of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (2014), Carolyn likens her sister’s genius to transmigration: “Something else deeper happens when she sings. She goes somewhere else. She slips into the zone. That’s her gift. The zone is where she’s connected to the spirit. Doesn’t matter what she’s singing—a gospel song or a worldly song—the minute she opens her mouth, she’s off into the zone. She can’t explain the zone. Erma can’t explain the zone. I can’t explain the zone. No one can. Not even Daddy. It’s where great artists go to channel what I call the blood. I’m talking about the artistic blood that flows through certain people and has them expressing all the emotions of the world.”
All the emotions of the world: that’s one way to characterize what is evoked while watching Amazing Grace, the long-delayed documentary of Aretha Franklin’s two performances, on January 13 and 14, 1972, of (mostly) gospel standards at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Those live recordings were assembled as the double album Amazing Grace, still the highest-selling disc of Aretha’s career and the most successful live gospel record of all time. Released in June ’72, roughly midway through Aretha’s 1967–79 tenure at Atlantic Records, the label where she reached her artistic and commercial apogee, the album was billed as a homecoming of sorts for the Queen of Soul, returning to the music she sang as a child as a star attraction at her father’s sermons in Detroit and beyond.
To document these two extraordinary nights, Jerry Wexler, Aretha’s longtime producer at Atlantic, arranged for director Sydney Pollack to film the performances; Warner Bros., the parent company of Atlantic, had planned to release the movie, rather incongruously, on a double bill with Super Fly in the summer of ’72. But Pollack didn’t synch sound and image properly, so the project languished for decades. With the blessing of Pollack (who died in 2008), Alan Elliott, a former associate of Wexler’s, oversaw the completion of the documentary, which was originally set to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2015—until legal action by Aretha scuttled those plans.
The reasons why Aretha, notoriously litigious, didn’t want audiences to see Amazing Grace—which shows her, then twenty-nine, fully in “the zone,” performing perhaps her most beautiful, transporting music—will forever remain unknown. But as one of the greatest talents of the twentieth century, she more than earned the right to confound the public. The legal obstacles to releasing Amazing Grace were cleared shortly following Aretha’s death this past August, after Elliott secured the full support of the singer’s family; Sabrina Owens, Aretha’s niece and the executor of her estate, told the New York Times, “The world needs to see it.”
To see it, and to feel it. The awe sets in even before Aretha’s appearance. Reverend James Cleveland, once the minister of music at C. L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and an early influence on Aretha—and her chief collaborator for Amazing Grace—warmly welcomes the approximately 150 people assembled (the crowd is mostly black, young, and hip; pasty Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts show up the second evening) before introducing his group of singers, the Southern California Community Choir. All dressed in silver and black, these twenty-eight men and women, Aretha’s backup vocalists for both January nights, enter single file, singing “On Our Way.” They seem borne aloft by their soaring harmonies.
And yet we’re not even halfway to heaven. Smiling demurely and shaking the hands of a few well-wishers as she walks down the aisle, Aretha arrives wearing a white floor-length tunic ornamented with spangles (her tunic the second night is green paisley). She sits at the piano and looks over some notes placed on top of the Steinway while Cleveland charmingly jokes with the audience. As she begins her first number, a sublime version of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” from his ’71 concept album What’s Going On, we are reminded of two axiomatic truths: that Aretha Franklin makes secular music sound sacred and vice versa, and that no matter how good the originals, her covers are invariably better.
Although the voice of Aretha Franklin, however incomparable, may be familiar to us, it’s rare to witness the sheer physical and mental exertion required to create that glorious sound. The camera tight on her face, Aretha closes her eyes as soon as she starts to sing “Wholy Holy,” as if plunging into a fathomless trance or shutting out all stimuli deemed superfluous to making a joyful noise. After this number, Cleveland takes over at the piano while Aretha moves to the pulpit. (She’ll accompany herself on the piano once more, on the second night, for “Never Grow Old,” as her father wipes her brow.) During “Precious Memories” and other songs, she often grips both sides of the lectern, steadying herself from the sonic boom she summons over and over. An extreme close-up in the middle of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”—a sanctified song here interspersed with a few lyrics from Carole King’s soft-rock anthem “You’ve Got a Friend”—reveals a constellation of sweat beads on Aretha’s face. They resemble jewels, or tiny prisms.
When Aretha isn’t singing, she is almost completely silent. There is no banter with the congregants; during their applause, she mouths, “Thank you.” At one point we can barely make out her request for water; occasionally we see her confer with Cleveland between numbers. During a moment of technical difficulties on the second night, she consults with her father, seated in the first pew. Later that evening, Reverend Franklin addresses the church, praising his daughter. Words seem to fail even this silver-tongued preacher, who calls Aretha’s talent “that intangible something that is hard to describe.” Maybe one pronoun, chanted by the choir during Aretha’s exuberant rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” best sums up her voice, the Amazing Grace album, the Amazing Grace documentary: everything.
Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.