With the litany of production credits that trails at the end of the “new” Aretha Franklin film Amazing Grace, it is an astonishing miracle that the film exists as it does, completely unadulterated. There is a brief text crawl that introduces the film, explaining why this rare and exceptional performance occurred, and then you are allowed to simply watch. There are no self-aggrandizing interviews, such as in The Last Waltz, for example. Nobody talks about what’s happening or attempts to shine light on the events. You just get to watch. And that is wonderful.
Franklin is brilliant as expected, but you’re also treated to one of the finest call-and-response partners there is, James Cleveland; not to mention the Southern California Community Choir. As Mr. Cleveland points out to the audience at one point, the project could have just been another studio effort by Franklin, but that the point of recording at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church is to get audience reaction on the record, as well.
And hey. Mick Jagger and his friend Charlie Watts are in the audience as well. Because of course they are.
The film, captured on 16 mm film by filmmaker Sydney Pollack, could not originally be released because of a technical screw-up that prevented audio synchronization. Later techniques fixed this problem, but, I was sad to learn, Franklin sued to keep it from being screened. That’s a shame because it’s a film that shows her as a mighty powerful presence.
Amazing Grace is a joy for a music nerd like me. The only problems I had with it are that it made me want so badly to be in the room and that made this non-believer want to find a black Baptist church and sign up. Have you ever been to one of those services? I have. One of those might make Bob Ingersoll a believer.
Seriously, though: Amazing Grace is one of those things you will regret not having seen in the theater. It is a beautiful document, treated carefully and honorably by its caretakers. What a wonderful thing to get to experience.