Amazing Grace – Film Review by Frank L.
Directors: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack
Stars: Aretha Franklin, Reverand James Cleveland, Southern California Community Choir
This documentary records Aretha Franklin performing in Los Angeles over two nights in January 1972, in Watts, Los Angeles. For this performance, she returned to her Gospel roots and performed in New Bethel Baptist Church. There were two performances and Franklin is supported at both by the Southern California Community Choir, a choir which lives and breathes Gospel music.
The arrival of the choir creates itself a pageant as the members move rhythmically in unison into the church in a slow, carefully orchestrated procession. The master of ceremonies is the Reverand James Cleveland but given the presence of Franklin it is she who dominates. There are close ups of her singing with beads of sweat emerging from her pores. This is the world in which she crafted her skills and she is in her element. The power of what is being sung is embellished by the conductor, one Alexander Hamilton whose ability to move his limbs in great arcs as he conducts complements the searing sound of Franklin and the harmonies of the choir.
This is a performance deeply rooted in the tradition of Black Gospel singing. The congregation are dressed in their best. It all adds to a sense of occasion. With the hindsight of the intervening years, two very brief shots of a youthful Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the congregation adds another sense of homage to the magnificence of Franklin.
Although this film was shot over forty seven years ago, as a result of technical and then legal difficulties it did not see the light of day until late last year which by any standards is a very long period of gestation. The arrival of the documentary now after so many years allows us to experience the power of Franklin performing at the height of her powers to a congregation of which she was a part.
It is a unique documentary. Make sure to see it.