I had a choice on Thursday night to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, or go to SIFF, our independent film theater here in Seattle, to see a documentary about a young Aretha Franklin. I chose the latter.
The documentary Amazing Grace, which shows Franklin performing at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1972 is described by reviewers as “transcendent”, and indeed it is. The film, recorded by director Sidney Pollack, sat in the can for all these years due to technical problems with the original recording. Pollack failed to synchronize image and sound, making it impossible to watch the film. Contemporary digital technology allowed correction of that original error, and now, all these years later and months after Franklin’s death, we have Amazing Grace.
If you want to see the Queen of Soul singing black church music at the height of her vocal power, unadorned by a glitzy set and with a community black gospel choir as her backup, this is your film. I don’t know if it will be in wide distribution, but go wherever you need to. This is an incandescent experience.
One of the reviewers commented on how tired Aretha Franklin looked, in that hot church, singing her heart out. She did look tired. She was just thirty in the documentary. She was the single mother of four children, on tour, already a Grammy winning vocalist, already with the title Queen of Soul. This album took her back to her church roots. When she sang Amazing Grace, title song of the film, the backup choir was beside themselves in ecstasy. Reverend Cleveland, who was accompanying her on the piano, slid into a chair, put his head in his hands, and sobbed.
In case you’ve never been to a black church worship service, they are all in with gospel songs. Black church singing is a whole body and soul experience. That’s what you see here.
Don’t miss this.
If you can’t see Amazing Grace, at least revisit Franklin at the end of her career, at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994.