Amazing Grace

Unseen and unfinished for over 45 years, Amazing Grace is an extraordinary concert movie starring  the late Aretha Franklin as she returned to her gospel roots.

Recorded over two nights in January 1972 in a baptist church in Los Angeles, the concert, released soon after as a live album, became biggest-selling record of Aretha’s career and is still the biggest-selling gospel recording of all time.

But the event was also filmed, by none other than Sydney Pollack, Oscar-nominated for directing They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and a huge Aretha fan – although, sadly, not a concert film-maker. Sydney screwed it up. He didn’t sync the sound with the film so it was impossible to edit. They scrapped releasing the movie anyway, not thinking it was much to look at.

True, you never need much more than Aretha’s voice but, watching it now, all these years later, you realise you’re witnessing one of the great vocal performances of all time. Aretha wasn’t even 30 years old but she was at the height of her fame, with hits already piling up: Chain of Fools, Natural Woman, Say A Little Prayer, Spanish Harlem…

She’d already moved into funkier territory, with Rock Steady and the Young, Gifted and Black album, but, brought up in the church under her famous father Reverend CL Franklin, she wanted to pay tribute to the music she grew up with. Looking at her perform, she clearly also wanted to praise God.

Aretha barely says a word throughout. The intros and the rhetoric is left to gospel leader James Cleveland. “She can sing anything,” he says. “Even Three Blind Mice.” The small audience of afros, moustaches and brimmed hats, holds it breath. You can spot Mick Jagger among them, next to Charlie Watts – the Stones happened to be in town, recording Exile in Main Street, but Mick always found out about the best parties and best gigs. “Let’s get hip to giving vent to the spirit,” exhorts Cleveland…

Aretha simply walks to the front, with the Southern California Community Choir walking in one by one, and in a white robe dotted with sequins, adorned only by pearl earrings that dangle like bunches of grapes, she just sings. Sings like you’ve never heard singing sung before, soaring high to the angels, with such clarity and fullness of tone. It’s a joyful noise and to watch her seriousness is as transcendent as it is resplendent. 

You don’t need to be religious to get this and her versions of, say, How I Got Over and Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy are pretty rocking (Aretha’s band including Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie are also in the house, after all) and she works in a rousing version of Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend.

But it’s a spiritual spectacle and several in the audience are clearly lifted up. There’s a girl in a purple velour mini-dress shaking her thing while older women look to the ceiling –  even Aretha herself, as she booms out the title track Amazing Grace, has to be supported by Cleveland, who grabs her like an arresting cop. On other occasions, he mops her brow as she sits at the piano. I’m not sure I like Cleveland that much – he seems to have a power over Aretha that make me uneasy, as does the atmosphere when Aretha’s father shows up on the second night to give a little speech. I don’t like these men taking over, trying to get in on Aretha’s act of devotion. 

That’s about all the drama there is in the movie. Aretha makes a striking costume change for the second night, into a green and white robe with a paisley trim and a layered gold chain and, in this 90 minute run time whittled down from the 20 hours of original raw footage, they’ve kept in some behind-the-scenes stuff – mainly of Sydney Pollack looking a bit panicked…

So, visually, this may not be one of the great concert movies – see Stop Making Sense, Monterrey Pop, Jazz On A Summer’s Day, Sign o’ the Times, Truth or Dare, or The Last Waltz for those – but nothing sounds like Aretha Franklin and there can rarely have been a more powerful, fervent or soulful performance ever captured on camera. Thank God we get to see it at last.