A spellbinding performance by the singer is captured in Sydney Pollacks 1972 film
The 1970s may have been the heyday of the rock concert film, but the genre was frequently marred by questionable performances and legal squabbles. Whether its Led Zeppelin going off the boil in the wrangle-ridden The Song Remains the Same or the Rolling Stones finding themselves stars of an unfolding horror movie in the Maysless Gimme Shelter, these movies are fraught with strife. Its significant that the most celebrated concert film of all, Martin Scorseses The Last Waltz, captured the Band as they were splitting up, cementing the genres long-standing funereal affiliations and serving as inspiration for Rob Reiners nail-in-the-coffin mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.
The story of Amazing Grace, centring on Aretha Franklins two-night performance in 1972 which led to the biggest selling live gospel album of all time, is no less troubled. Apparently inspired by the financial success of Mike Wadleighs festival behemoth Woodstock, and with an eye on increasingly synergistic film/music/TV markets, Warners enlisted Oscar winner Sydney Pollack to direct multi-camera 16mm footage of the 29-year-old Franklin recording her next album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, with his background in drama rather than music docs, Pollack failed to use clapperboards or markers, making it virtually impossible to synch the resulting picture with the recorded sound. Not even lip readers, who were reportedly enlisted to sift through hours of silent film, could solve the problem.
Instead, the footage languished in the vaults for decades until producer Alan Elliott began working on a reconstruction using previously unavailable digital technologies. Several years after Pollacks death in 2008, Elliott had managed to assemble a workable cut, only to have his efforts scuppered by lawsuits from Franklin claiming unauthorised appropriation of her likeness. Although she told the Detroit Free Press in 2015 that I love the film itself, Aretha continued to contest its release, and the legal issues have only now been resolved in the wake of the singers death, turning what was once a celebration into something more like a eulogy.
So, after nearly five decades, does the film stand the test of time? Hallelujah, yes! Despite being both unforgivingly overlit and tantalisingly truncated (this trim 88-minute cut abridges or omits some classic tracks), Elliotts Lazarus-like resurrection of Pollacks movie captures both the hive of musical activity and fervour or religious ecstasy that thronged through that church all those years ago.
Ive often argued that cinemas at least, the good ones share a sacred-space status with places of worship. Its a belief confirmed by the sight of Franklin seated at the piano for a tender rendition of Marvin Gayes Wholy Holy, or standing at the pulpit for her soul-shaking delivery of Amazing Grace. On record, that church sounds vast, yet Pollacks footage emphasises both the compact nature of the congregation (encouraged to swell their voices for the recording) and the intimate size of the auditorium an intimacy which merely amplifies the songs emotional power. No wonder the Rev James Cleveland is reduced to tears, a reaction I guarantee will be repeated in cinemas everywhere.
You can feel the heat that sets beads of sweat running from the musicians brows. At one point, the Rev CL Franklin steps over to mop his daughters face as she climbs the mountain of yet another towering performance. Studiously attentive between numbers (its hard to reconcile this understated Aretha with the persona cultivated elsewhere), she takes flight in song, her eyes either closed in concentration or flutteringly focused on some distant horizon, way beyond the here and now.
As Arethas voice transcends this world, Pollacks crew have the more down-to-earth task of catching ever more adventurous angles, peering up through the lid of a piano or down through the ranks of the congregation. Theres a scrappy, vrit feel to the footage as the crew capture each other on camera, scuttling around in response to the gesticulations of their director. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are picked out lurking at the back of the hall, learning lessons from gospel star Clara Ward is in attendance too, a regal presence bestowing a sense of history in the making.
Best of all, however, is the sight of Alexander Hamilton conducting the Southern California Community Choir through the emotional highs and lows of the music with moves that are as joyfully expressive as the songs themselves. When a parishioner leaps to her feet, her spirit clearly moved, youll want to do the same. Wholy Holy indeed.