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The 'Amazing Grace' of Aretha Franklin

After being buried for over 40 years, footage of Aretha Franklin’s iconic church performance, which would become one of the highest-selling gospel albums in history, finally comes to light.

by Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Apr 5 2019, 1:09pm

Photo courtesy of Neon 

Welcome to "Reel Women," a column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.

Amazing Grace, for many, instantly incites the sound of the famous Christian hymn, with perhaps the most famous version of them all, Aretha Franklin’s, during her two-night residency at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972. Yet the title could be, and probably is in some way, a reference to the incredible poise exhibited by the diva when she walked into the Southern California church with a show-stopping fur coat and a demure look on her face.

In Sydney Pollack’s posthumous new film Amazing Grace, fans of the iconic singer get a glimpse of her performing in the space she grew up in: the church. Though the album is one of the best-selling gospel records of all time—and has been on heavy rotation for yours truly—actually seeing her on the screen is a whole new sensation, especially because it was clearly such a miraculous experience for the mostly Black audience in attendance. As much as it is a celebration at the time, it also feels like a vigil, especially in an era when the country was grappling with the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, beginning of the Black Power movement, and ongoing Vietnam War.

Hearing Franklin sing is a religious experience in and of itself, so much so that it almost feels sacrilegious to witness it at a church, where she becomes the subject of worship instead of, well, God. But it also feels right, considering Franklin was a godsend; her voice that of an angel. “Angelic” might be the first word that comes to mind when she takes the stage that first January night donning all white.

Co-director Alan Elliott says that Franklin was a demanding artist but this session was different. “It was a real community of like-minded individuals,” he tells Broadly. “And that, I think, offered her the ability to really focus on doing two things: a church service and making a record.”

“She can sing anything...‘Three Blind Mice,’” is how the church’s reverend, James Cleveland, introduces her in the film—and it’s true that even secular music sounds spiritual when delivered by Franklin. (In her hit single “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” Franklin makes pining for a lover sounds like an urgent benediction.) Later in the film, on the second night, Aretha’s father, a reverend himself, shares a few words about his daughter and says that she has “that intangible something that’s hard to describe.”

Indeed coming up with words for the kind of je ne sais quoi Franklin embodies is a difficult task. Her niece and estate executor, Sabrina Owens, tells Broadly that it’s wonderful to actually “see the power of her voice.”

There’s a grueling story behind actually getting the film out to the public. During filming, director Sydney Pollack ( Tootsie) failed to sync the audio and video properly, and the film was shelved away for many years until Elliott bought it and pieced it together with editor Jeff Buchanan.

When it was finally ready for its premiere, Franklin stopped the film from coming out, for unknown reasons. It was after her death that her estate, run by her family, gave Elliott the permission to release it. And even though her legacy has been deeply embedded within pop culture, this is a new side of her that the film lets us witness.

Aretha is unexpectedly candid towards the end of each night, sweating off her glittery eyeshadow; at one point, when her fingers are occupied on the piano keys, her father gets up to wipe off her brow perspiration with a towel. “Diva” has become a somewhat synonymous word for Aretha, but you don’t see much of that persona in this particular performance. “She exuded both confidence but also a shyness that we did not see in her later more mature years,” Owens says.

The film eschews talking head accounts—though there would certainly be no shortage of interviews from influential musicians who would be willing to wax poetic about the late icon. Instead, it keeps us in the moment, seating us in one of the pews of the Baptist church. “What we really wanted to do was create this experience where you felt like you were in the room,” Elliott says.

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It’s not one of those church services where you’re squirming in your seat, dozing off. Even from the first note she belts, tears will inevitably be shed. Aretha could make gospel music as ecstatic as pop music. In fact, Amazing Grace was a perfect listening compromise between gospel and pop music lovers. Franklin reworks songs by secular artists like Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” And though Gaye and King’s renditions are beautiful, the way Franklin’s voice pierces when covering them, it’s as if she’s reaching for the heavens. She sings for us as much as she sings for God’s ears.

The beauty of Aretha Franklin, as demonstrated best in Amazing Grace, is how she married these different genres. After all, she was able to bring out Mick Jagger to church—he can be seen dancing along in the crowd—while simultaneously moving the reverend to throw his towel at the camera out of pure zeal. Spellbinding yet grounded on earth, Franklin won the crowd and is sure to do it again with this film.