AMAZING GRACE (Cert. U) — not to be confused with the film with the same title about William Wilberforce (Arts, 23 March 2007) — stars Aretha Franklin. This isn’t a documentary — songs interspersed with talking heads and cutaway action shots, as in various Whitney Houston retrospectives — nor a filmed concert akin to a Rolling Stones’ performance. This is a top-of-the mountain, transfiguring experience: more an act of worship than anything else.
Franklin died only last August, probably spurring producers into getting this 1972 film circulated for the first time. It covers a two-day recording session at New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. The resultant Amazing Grace live album went on to become the biggest-selling gospel music of all time. We learn little from the woman herself. She barely acknowledges the congregation. Her focus is on the Lord.
The film was abandoned because of legal differences between Warner Brothers and Franklin’s lawyers. There were also difficulties, now finally corrected, in synchronising the sound with the images. It was directed by the music producer Alan Elliott and the up-and-coming Sydney Pollack (Out Of Africa, Tootsie, etc.). The songs carry the story, a musical pilgrim’s progress. We can begin piecing her history through them.
Franklin’s rendition of “How I Got Over” (with the help of Jesus) tells us all we need to know about a chequered career of broken relationships, struggles with alcoholism, and weight issues. One senses that she lived in the shadow of her celebrity minister father, the Revd C. L. Franklin. When addressing those present, he talks as if Aretha were still a little girl. When she sings, we feel, as does the congregation, divine forgiveness.
Something about the shots transports us to a heavenly realm. There is one, in particular, in which Franklin is veritably effulgent as she tells us “What a friend we have in Jesus” and how all of us need to take our troubles to the Lord. Even nominally secular numbers are pressed into service. Rock ’n’ roll becomes rock ’n’ soul. The spiritual “Precious Lord, take my hand” is interwoven with Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend”, taking on a religious dimension.
A totally engaged congregation is mainly black, though we do get glimpses of luminaries such as Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. The title song is a supreme moment, bestowing on congregation (and probably viewers) a divine benison.
One wonders where this Aretha Franklin vehicle would have fitted into the culture if it had been released at the time. In succession to the dignity of Sidney Poitier films came Blaxploitation movies such as Shaft (1971). Would a diet of gospel music feel too Uncle Tom in the face of Black Power assertions? Or, rather, would it be equally subversive by inspiring those still trying to make sense of where the civil-rights movement, having won some battles, needed to proceed?
Either way, this is a film to see. When Franklin sings “Mary, don’t you weep”, how could you not do so for all that is past, and where we go from here?