Words by Jeremy Burgess
The live album is a curious thing.
For an artist to forgo the “best” (or, at least, most polished) versions of their material in favor of more energy, more verve, even more mysticism is likewise to invite and embrace imperfection, the unavoidable errors (however small or ultimately insignificant) that come with any performance.
Granted, you might need a high-powered microscope to find flaws in the vocal intonations of the Queen of Soul; what’s more, by the time 1972’s Amazing Grace came around, Aretha Franklin already had three live albums to her name.
But this one was going to be special.
That’s why legendary director Sydney Pollack was called in to film the experience. Though Pollack might not’ve been a household name at the time, he was certainly a rising star in Hollywood — he’d received a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? less than two years earlier, and he was putting the finishing touches on Jeremiah Johnson, which would become the first Western to screen at the Cannes Film Festival a few months later.
While the music went off without a hitch, things didn’t go as smoothly for Pollack and his crew.
As the story goes, because they couldn’t use clapperboards for the shoot, it was nearly impossible for Pollack’s editors to sync the audio with the footage they’d captured. As a result, the project was abandoned, and the footage was tossed into a vault at the Warner Bros. studios.
Since then, there’s been quite a journey to get the film in front of an audience. Since 2007, when the footage was purchased and synchronized through updated technology by producer Alan Elliott, two attempts to release the film (in 2011, then again in 2015) were blocked by threat of a lawsuit from Franklin herself. After Franklin’s death in 2018, her family made
arrangements to release the film, and it premiered later that year.
In spite of those dubious origins, Amazing Grace now stands as a towering, triumphant achievement in the realm of nonfiction cinema — and perhaps for the very thing that most concert docs tend to avoid.
The same element of raw, unfiltered presentation that makes the album such a classic — and indeed, the best-selling gospel album of all time —s taken one step further through the visual medium. Twenty hours of footage over the course of two nights was cut down to an 87-minute highlight reel of this legendary session.
That’s the real hook of Amazing Grace: The way the film transports the viewer to the pews of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
The moments that a sleek, flashy, distant concert doc would eliminate on the cutting room floor are precisely the moments that add to the experience here. When Franklin first sits down to the piano and begins to sing, a hand enters the frame to adjust her microphone. From there, the film is peppered with jarring zooms, shots that break focus, even lengthy takes where the cameramen themselves are part of the scene. It’s all there, truly, and it enhances the experience to a higher degree.
Likewise, there are supporting characters around Franklin who add layers to the story without distracting from the Queen’s spotlight. Those who enjoy the album will be familiar with remarks from Franklin’s father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, but the Rev. James Cleveland serves as narrator and host of the two evenings, and his charm sets the stage in a warm, inviting manner for the audience. In a similar vein, Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Southern California Community Choir, provides a lively and animated backdrop to Franklin’s stationary but commanding stature.
In fact, it’s Hamilton’s choir that gives us the best moment of the film. These gospel singers are seen throughout the film in cutaways and background shots, but when Franklin sings the titular track, their reaction — standing, clapping, witnessing — is incredibly moving, enough to bring tears to the eye.
This is the trick that Pollack and his crew (along with editor Jeff Buchanan) pull off so well in Amazing Grace — incorporating Franklin’s audience rather than avoiding them. Anyone who’s heard the album knows just how remarkable her voice sounds here, of course, and Franklin’s brilliant white dress is truly a stunning and angelic visual. But by not focusing on Franklin the entire time, viewers can live vicariously through Reverends Franklin and Cleveland, through
Hamilton and his gospel choir, through every person sitting in the church pews (including notable spectator Mick Jagger).
It’s a blessing that the audience has expanded beyond those church walls in 1972. The film has screened at top-tier festivals and made the rounds at theaters across the country — raking in an impressive $4 million along the way — and it feels destined to find a widespread and devoted audience once it hits streaming platforms. Not just for lovers of gospel music and fans of Aretha Franklin, but for anyone who believes in miracles.
4.5 stars out of 5
Jeremy Burgess is a writer and filmmaker born, raised, and based in Birmingham, AL. Alongside a seven-year career in advertising, he’s written for The Birmingham News, Birmingham Magazine, ModernHorrors.com, and more. His most recent film is Mama Bears, a short documentary made through a grant program with the Memphis Grizzlies.