review

Amazing Grace: in heaven with Aretha Franklin

Onze score

The only reason you wouldn’t get swept away by Amazing Grace is if you have no interest whatsoever in Aretha Franklin or gospel music. This documentary, which was presumed lost, immerses you in the recordings of Franklin’s legendary gospel album.

The fact that Amazing Grace is one of the most popular gospel albums is hardly surprising. It was sung by one of the absolute greats: Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul recorded the album in two days in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, in the presence of faithful churchgoers, two members of The Rolling Stones, and father and preacher C.L. Franklin.

Warner Bros intuited the album’s tremendous impact and commissioned a concert film from Sydney Pollack. The director of Out of Africa and Tootsie didn’t go for a chatty or glamourous approach, but shot the film in the style of cinéma vérité. It worked, but afterwards it turned out to be impossible to synchronize the sound and the film footage and the film disappeared off the radar for 38 years. After Pollack’s death, the material found its way into the hands of producer Alan Elliott, who was able to fix the technical issues, but Aretha Franklin refused to give her permission for the film to be released. She, unfortunately, is no longer around. Last year, the singer of global smash hits like “Respect” and “I Say a Little Prayer” passed away, and the film has been posthumously released.

And that is good news. Because all kinds of things were going on in the decidedly inglorious church. Emotions ran high, the Reverend James Cleveland assumed the role of master of ceremonies with great enthusiasm but very little humility, and a surprisingly soberly dressed Aretha Franklin seemed to let it all pass her by. But her absent-mindedness and impassivity in the midst of great tumult appears to be pure concentration: whenever she sings, the gates of heaven fling open. The slightly dark shots and banal details of the music recording form a perfect counterpoint to the heavenly music. Thanks to this film, you also witnessed it live in 1972. How amazing is that?

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