It’s a rare thing to see footage from times long past resurface in a feature length film, but Amazing Grace is one such case: filmed in 1971 by none other than Sydney Pollack, it was meant to be a documentary of the live recording of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album. Due to technical difficulties, however, the film is only now – more than 40 years later – being screened to an audience.
Getting to see Franklin perform live (even just on screen), however, is a rapturous experience at any point in time. Filmed and recorded over two nights, Amazing Grace consists almost entirely of the performance. There is little setup, and little being said in between. Reverend James Cleveland invites his audience to take part in the gospel, reminding them that though it is a concert, it is a religious service as well. The documentary reminds us of that, periodically showing the immense painting of Jesus watching over the congregation. The setting is a humble one, but both the live audience and the viewer gets quickly pulled in by the sheer magnetism of Franklin’s voice.
Franklin herself is often shown in closeups, sweat and tears running down her face. Emotion sweeps through the choir, the Reverend, and the audience as they respond, clapping, swaying, singing along. One gets to witness first-hand the power she had on a crowd.
The album which resulted from these performances, titled as the film itself, went on to become the all-time best-selling gospel album, and this comes as no surprise. One year after Franklin’s death in 2018, the film is a precious time capsule, preserving the raw and thrilling presence of the Queen of Soul both for those who saw her on stage before, and those who never had the chance.
CAST: Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, The Southern California Community Choir, Alexander Hamilton
DIRECTORS: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack
SYNOPSIS: In January 1972, Aretha Franklin made her legendary album Amazing Grace with the Southern California Community Choir and Reverend James Cleveland. This session was filmed by Sydney Pollack.