Rev. James Cleveland
1 Hr., 27 Mins.
Amazing Grace April 26, 2019
n January, 1972, about two months before her 30th birthday, Aretha Franklin went to Los Angeles. When she arrived, with her was an intent to produce a live album that explicitly paid homage to her gospel roots. The venue in which the recording would take place was the New Temple Baptist Church; performances would unfold over the course of two evenings. Both nights, the small audience which gathered comprised mostly locals. The
second session was more star-studded. Not only were Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones in attendance — also there were Franklin’s pastor father, C.L., who offered a few words mid-performance (“If you want to know the truth, she never left the church”), and Franklin’s mentor, Clara Ward, who at one point was so moved by her protégé's melisma that a handful of attendees had to physically prevent her fervor from evolving into wild abandon.
The stitched-together performances engendered Amazing Grace, a live double LP. In 1973, it won Franklin a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance, and later accumulated so many sales that, today, there remains yet to be a gospel record to have surpassed it commercially. For years, though, little-dwelled-on was that, inside the church, Franklin and her collaborators were not merely getting the concerts captured on vinyl. Warner Bros. had commissioned the director Sydney Pollack to helm a complementary concert movie, allowing Franklin’s fans to enjoy the experience as if they had seen the reception in person later on.
But due to technical problems, the documentary sat unfinished and unreleased for years. Franklin was unremittingly wary of trying to tend to its wounds and get it a long-delayed release. She was so firm in her belief that the film should never see the light of day that, in 2015, after the footage had finally been ameliorated and was about to be screened at a handful of festivals without her permission, she resorted to threatening legal recourse.
Three months after Franklin’s August, 2018 death, the cinematic Amazing Grace was finally seen by a portion of the public at a screening in New York, and received rave reviews. On April 5, it was given a more-widespread theatrical release; I saw it last Friday. I typically try to refrain from engaging with art that its creator has explicitly said they did not want the public to experience in their lifetime post-mortem. But Amazing Grace, which is a masterpiece of the concert-film form, is the kind of feature with the ability to make me temporarily put a stop to my ethical commitments. To paraphrase Wesley Morris of The New York Times, Franklin might not have wanted us to see this movie, but it’s nonetheless a movie you must see.
An early title card reminds us that, at the time Franklin came to Los Angeles, she was at the apogee of her career. By 1972, she had released 20 albums and had had 11 of her singles go to number one. When Franklin walks in through the church doors the first night, she looks, depending on your point of view, either exhausted or unnervingly steadfast — like a performer who knows exactly what she wants to come out of this night and, as such, will not be able to ease up until the evening has come to an end. (Realistically, Franklin is feeling a mixture of both fatigue and determination.)
Franklin is made up luminously. On the first night, she’s swathed in a bead-accented white gown; on the second, she’s dressed in jade-green, tie-dye-ish robes. Her eyelids and lips gleam with carefully applied makeup; her afro is immaculately coiffed. But she obliquely makes it clear that her appearance is not what she’s prioritizing. It’s the show that’s on her mind. She refrains from making too much eye contact with her audience. Her eyes, from the time she ambles through the door to the time she takes a seat, are hypnotically fixed on collaborator Rev. James Cleveland, who is, aside from Franklin, the most vital figure on stage. She’s eager to begin, if not obviously so.
The setup looks awkward. A chorus — specifically the Southern California Community Choir, all clad in matching silver vests — is unceremoniously seated behind Franklin, who either belts from behind a piano or a pulpit. Sometimes its members look so enamored of Franklin that I wondered if they had to remind themselves to keep singing in certain moments. (When not, they hype her up — especially later, during the performance of the eponymous song.) Empty chairs encircle her and accompanying instrumentalists. Wires are omnipresent. You can tell, based on the sweat that will eventually profusely pour from Franklin’s and Cleveland’s foreheads, that the room is a little balmier than your standard 70 degrees. But we can also tell, once Franklin starts her first song — a soaring cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” from 1971 — that no ephemera or person in sight is gratuitously or thoughtlessly placed. Listen to the resulting album and it uncannily sounds like a woman singing, for an hour and a half, in front of her fellow churchgoers — exactly what Franklin wanted.
Describing in detail what unfolds in a concert movie is a tedious, largely unnecessary task. (The high-water marks of the shows, though, are undoubtedly the seven-and-a-half-minute take on the eternally powerful pre-Civil-War Spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” and the gut-punching interpretation of the title hymn.) But what can be said is that the film, in lieu of what some might perceive to be photographic and editing inferiority (it is, after all, considered incomplete), is one which bears a colossal, soul-stirring emotional formidability. Franklin, at the center of this church, creates not just a feeling of home and unity but announces herself as the closest thing to a divine being personified in that place and that moment. A