There’s a habit in the movie industry to release religious films around the Easter holiday, because, you know, Jesus truly cares about your entertainment habits in a medium he couldn’t possibly have conceived of 2,000 years ago. Most of the time this manifests itself in the form of either evangelical treacle films that posit any good outcome as proof of divine intervention (this year’s entry being Breakthrough) or outright lying to the audience about some form of abomination in an attempt to rally Christian “soldiers” into political action (the near universally-panned Unplanned fits that bill in 2019). But really, the best film about faith you’ll likely see this year is a film that’s more about a (formerly) living, breathing person expressing her it through her most powerful means – a voice seemingly sent from the angels themselves – rather than being ordered around by people who essentially claim to be conduits to the Almighty.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin, arguably the greatest singer who ever lived, took a break from her unbridled pop and soul music success to go back to her roots in the church and make “Amazing Grace,” a live gospel album recorded over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She performed several gospel standards, adding her own signature flair, with the help of the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, her backup band, and the Southern California Community Choir, led by conductor Alexander Hamilton (given that name’s meaning in great modern music, his influence almost feels preordained).
The album went on to become the greatest selling gospel album of all time, and rightfully so, given the quality on display throughout the proceedings. It’s been just over eight months since Franklin passed away, yet her voice is as crystal clear and beautiful as the moment she first put it to pressed wax decades ago. However, in an almost fitting way, the first piece she performs, “Wholy Holy,” begins with the Queen of Soul using not her voice, but her fingers, to play the hymn’s opening on the piano. There’s a difference between being a “singer” and a “musician,” to say nothing of the more qualitative term, “artist.” And all too often the distinction of those terms is lost in modern music, especially pop and dance. There are plenty of famous singers out there, talented ones too (your mileage may vary of course; there’s no accounting for taste), but in this day and age it’s hard to tell where true talent lies, because voices are manipulated by computer, instrumentation is eschewed in favor of engineered beats, and there are so many “featured” performances on each track that the very concept of artistry is all but rendered meaningless. Aretha though? Not only are her vocal bona fides well in order, but she also makes sure to give lie to any misconception that she’s “just” a singer by beginning her concert with an expert display of instrumental talent. That’s a musician. That’s an artist.
The sheer joy escaping her lips with every note is palpable, even across more than 45 years of time and the space of a movie theatre. I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe there is more to our existence than the mundane. And for me, music is an avenue to that higher meaning. For lack of better term, I’ve felt what could be described as a religious experience through music, everything from the Beatles to Billy Joel, Al Green to Green Day, Bruce Springsteen to B.B. King. I had that same feeling watching and hearing Aretha belt out the gospel. If I have a soul, it was shaken to its core listening to this performance. You could feel the music in your chest, and not because of any vibrations from the auditorium’s speakers. She was just that transcendent of a talent.
The film itself is broken down into the two nights of performance, as if they’re two acts of the same play. After some explanatory text about how this film came to be, we go right into the church, where Dr. Cleveland talks a bit to the half-full chapel about Aretha’s upbringing in the church, before introducing the performers and getting right into the action. There are brief pauses between songs for water or commentary (and one brief insertion of rehearsal footage; you can tell because Aretha’s wearing a different outfit), but otherwise, we’re right into the next song and the next and the next, before rising to an ethereal performance of the album’s (and film’s) title hymn, which raises all from their seats in exaltation. You can see the sweat pour down everyone’s face throughout the recording session. They didn’t rest, so we don’t get to either. Once you’re in, you’re in for the duration, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Perhaps because of the quality of the first night, or perhaps simply from word of mouth, the second night is much more of a “concert” atmosphere than the more intimate proceedings of the first. The chapel is packed to standing room only. The scene feels more like a tent revival than a recording session. There are even celebrities in attendance, in the form of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones (the Stones were recording “Exile on Main St.” at the same time, and Mick’s attendance of this session – along with Billy Preston – inspired most of the gospel-infused rhythms of songs like “Tumbling Dice”), gospel mainstay Clara Ward, and Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. The two nights form an interesting dichotomy that I wish was explored a little bit further, but we can only ask so much from a goddess. Besides, if the footage isn’t there, then there’s nothing you can do about it.
This leads to the journey this film took to make it onto our screens. Produced by Spike Lee’s production house, 40 Acres and a Mule, the film is “realized” by Alan Elliott rather than simply “directed.” The film itself gives some of the details in the opening text, but the making of this film is a fascinating story, one almost worthy of a documentary in its own right.
When Aretha decided to make this album in the church, Warner Bros. hired director Sydney Pollack (Oscar-winner for Out of Africa among many other accolades; he died in 2008), fresh off his success with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and in between his time working on Jeremiah Johnson, to document the recording sessions for eventual TV/film distribution (apparently as a double feature with Super Fly). However, as he apparently never filmed a live concert before, Pollack didn’t use a clapboard to sync up the sound and video on each take. As such, the project was abandoned due to the sheer amount of money and man hours it would take to sync everything up.
That’s where Elliott comes in. The man mortgaged his house to buy the footage from the WB vault shortly before Pollack’s death, and with his blessing, he spent two years doing the yeoman’s work of synchronization. Pollack himself pops up on screen multiple times, along with the rest of the film crew, coordinating the shots and moving the cameras around, a fitting tribute to the late master’s skill.
Elliott planned to screen the completed film in 2011, but was stopped by Aretha herself, who successfully sued because a release meant using her image without permission. Another attempt was made in 2015, with the same result. Aretha never had an objection to the film itself; in fact she was quite passionate about the idea. Her issue was simply with reserving the rights to her own image, which is perfectly sound reasoning. Unfortunately, it created the sad side effect that no one could see the film until after her death, which renders it an elegy rather than a jubilee.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film should I review next? What’s your favorite concert film? Have you ever been touched by the church? No, not that way! I meant in a good way! Let me know!