Amazing Grace is an “instant” classic of the music doco genre, featuring a rhapsodic live gospel performance by Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers in 1972 (“instant” because the film has only just been released due to technical and legal issues – O happy day!).
In 1972, after an extraordinary run of 21 Top 10 hits, Aretha Franklin returned to her gospel roots with her album Amazing Grace. Recorded live over two days before a packed congregation at New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA, Aretha produced one for the ages, backed by the brilliant Southern California Community Choir and a band of crack musicians.
Her performance was also filmed, but the resulting 20 hours of footage was rendered unusable due to syncing problems, which have since been resolved through the application of modern technology. Franklin refused to permit the film’s release due to legal issues, but following her death in 2018, her family gave the nod.
So here we are, all these years later, able to join that congregation in 1972 in witnessing something very special and quite overwhelming. As transcendent as Aretha’s vocal renditions surely are, no audio recording alone can capture the full power of her performance, or her effect on the congregation. The visuals add a whole other dimension that amplifies the emotional impact of the music and showcases the theatricality of the gospel setting and its players.
The focus, of course, is on Aretha, who is fascinating to watch as well as listen to, as she plumbs the songs to their deepest reaches. The joyously rhythmic conductor of the wonderful choir, Alexander Hamilton, directs with great drama. MCing and playing brilliant piano is the charismatic Reverend James Cleveland. Then there is the gospel congregation, who give themselves over the music, whooping and cheering, weeping, heiling the Lord, rising in their seats or heading for the aisle to dance when the urge becomes irrepressible (which is often). Notables in the congregation include gospel legend Clara Ward, and getting into it down the back, a dancing, clapping Mick Jagger with a less demonstrative but no doubt equally appreciative Charlie Watts.
There’s an intriguing and slightly uncomfortable interlude in which Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, a controversial figure well-known as a Baptist minister and civil rights activist, takes the pulpit to wax lyrical over his daughter and her prodigious vocal talent. It’s hard to avoid the impression that he’s also much impressed with his own admittedly sonorous voice. He makes the most of his time in the spotlight, while Aretha sits by looking slightly embarrassed. When she subsequently resumes singing, Daddy gets in on the act, heavy-handedly mopping her perspiration from her face. As an attendee of the screening later remarked, it seemed a gesture of possession rather than the tender ministrations of a caring father.
Aretha departs from convention with the song choices, throwing in some popular secular hits, including a tremendous, heartfelt version of Carole King’s sometimes wimpy You’ve Got a Friend (James Taylor, I’m lookin’ at you).
The highlight, though, is the title song. Now, I have to say, I’ve heard more than enough renditions of Amazing Grace. I especially detest the trilling arpeggio detours away from the melody that have become standard over the years. Aretha’s improvisational interpretation as performed here and recorded for posterity on the album may well be to blame.
As interpreted by her, Amazing Grace is an epic musical and spiritual odyssey. Her version is a oncer, not a template for future divas imitating without understanding. People know when something’s real, when an artist is laying themselves bare. And when that happens to be a great artist like Aretha, the effect is transporting. As she makes her way through the song like a pilgrim in quest of the light, she sets off a series of emotional meltdowns – out-of-body experiences, even! – in members of the choir, in the congregation, and even in the Reverend James Cleveland, who must hand piano duties to more than capable choir director Hamilton while he recovers. Indeed, Aretha ends in tears herself.
This stuff could be funny if it weren’t so damned contagious in its effect. The truth is, it’s impossible to watch on unmoved. The visuals give us a sense of being part of the crowd in attendance. Gospel is, of course, a community mode of worship through music and as such can be very powerful. This is as powerful as it gets.
Whether or not you’re a believer is irrelevant here. This is a case of music invoking a sense of the divine, with Aretha the sublimely gifted medium. And it’s something you should experience not at home on video but in an audience at a cinema. That’s as close as you’re going to get to being there in 1972. It was close enough to light up a capacity audience at the screening I attended, and leave us glowing. Go.
Movie Website: https://www.amazing-grace-movie.com/
Australian release date: Amazing Grace screening in Perth at Luna Cinema, Leederville from Thursday, 29 August.
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