AMAZING GRACE A
USA (87 mi) 2018 d: Sydney Pollack and Alan Eliot
We forget, sometimes, that we are in the presence of greatness, and Aretha Franklin was a once in a generation singer whose influence could not be harnessed or diminished. Though she was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2010 Rolling Stone magazine ranked her number one on their list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” ("100 Greatest Singers: Aretha Franklin"), with her 1967 album, Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You’ on Atlantic voted the greatest female album of all time, Women Who Rock: The 50 Greatest Albums of All Time – Rolling Stone. That album made her a superstar, but perhaps more significantly was the influence of one particular song on the album, Aretha Franklin - Respect  (Original Version) - YouTube (2:30), which resonates with the power of her own personality, becoming synonymous with the spirit of the changing times, as she devoted an enormous part of her life working for the social change advocated by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with this song playing on the radio all day long. Franklin sang at the 1968 funeral for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and at the Democratic National Convention that same year, sang at the funeral services for Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks, performed at three Presidential inaugurations, Jimmy Carter in 1977, Bill Clinton in 1993, and Barack Obama in 2009, while also receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom award from former President George W. Bush in November 2005. However, she rejected requests to sing at a fourth, claiming “no amount of money” could convince her to perform at the Trump inauguration, though Trump claimed Franklin “worked for me on numerous occasions” and implied a sort of friendship between the two, though it’s clear Franklin, a staple in the Civil Rights movement, “despised” everything Trump stood for, including his inflammatory rhetoric and demeaning policy proposals. This film actually goes back to 1972, following a string of 11 consecutive No. 1 songs, having graced the cover of Time magazine, crowned Queen of Soul, yet despite the superlatives, there were those that criticized her for “leaving the church,” though anyone listening to her music was inundated by clear gospel roots, even in secular music, which is perhaps what set her apart from all the rest, as she sings with such a spiritual grace. As if answering those critics, this film was going to be Aretha’s return to traditional gospel, recorded live inside the humble and unpretentious setting of the Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church that used to be a movie studio, located in the neighborhood where the Watts riots occurred, probably holding no more than 200 people, populated by church goers and avid fans, filmed by a white film crew from Warner Brothers led by Sydney Pollack, whose only claim to fame at that time was a Depression-era danceathon with Jane Fonda and Gig Young entitled THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969), winning the aging Young a best supporting actor award and the director a best director nomination. As it turns out, Pollack made the rookie mistake of forgetting to use a clapper board for sound, so the audio was not in sync with the 20 hours of collected footage, something he could not easily fix, with the project eventually scrapped by the studios in 1972, languishing on the shelf for years, as the film was never completed. You can imagine the heartbreak and disappointment this must have caused her, led to believe this was her coming out party on film, like a black WOODSTOCK (1970), a gospel celebration of love and peace, and then no film materializes, where everything that she was promised dies right along with it. The record album, however, released that same year, was a remarkable achievement and went on to become the largest selling gospel album in history. Shortly after Pollack died in 2008, music producer Alan Elliot mortgaged his home and was able to procure the rights to the film, using digital technology to re-sync the film, where it was ready to be released by 2015 until legal constraints by Franklin mysteriously put a stop to that, never able to work out the details of adequate compensation. It was only after her death in 2018, with the consent of her family, that this film could finally see the light of day, where we can rediscover a 29-year old Aretha at the supreme height of her powers.
Few films take us into the heart of the black church as well as this one, where if it’s possible for a film to touch your soul, this is it, ironically filmed over two days by an all-white crew, using five 16mm cameras, yet the performers are exclusively black, exhibiting a flair for the moment that really can’t be described as much as “experienced.” Say what you will, but the stark contrast between what happens here and what we historically see in churches throughout film history, like Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne) (1951), Dreyer’s ORDET (1955), Buñuel’s NAZARIN (1959), Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna) (1963), or Reygadas’ SILENT LIGHT (2007), couldn’t be more radically different, where you wonder if they’re all praying to the same God, with one culture visibly moved and jubilant, raising their hands, spontaneously jumping to their feet as they are literally moved by the spirit, with the entire building immersed in wall-to-wall sound, while the other feels austere and distant, where you can hear a pin drop inside the church. All are devout Christians with a deep history of scripture and hymns, yet this religious tribute, unseen for over half a century, couldn’t be more inspiring. As a performer, Aretha, along with Ray Charles, helped bring the black church to the radio, both black and white, where her voice swells with raised emotions, providing that promised resilience of the soul needed for the long and difficult days ahead. Introducing her is Rev. James Cleveland, who collaborates with Aretha and serves as master of ceremony, playing piano, introducing each new hymn, featuring the dynamic Southern California Community Choir conducted by their animated choirmaster Alexander Hamilton, one of the unsung stars of the show. Occasionally Hamilton and Cleveland would briefly switch places, with Aretha mostly singing at the podium, at times accompanying herself on the piano as well. Originally scheduled to be released alongside SUPER FLY (1972) in the heart of the Blaxploitation era of cinema, the fashion is distinctly different, coinciding with the Black is Beautiful movement, with large afros, ostentatious hats, and sunglasses worn indoors, with Aretha herself decked out in immaculate attire, first dressed all in white, then in mixed aqua and green, though nothing outrageous that suggests a diva (though seen in a floor-length fur overcoat when she arrives), wearing a modest afro, barely uttering a word, allowing her voice to do all the talking. There is applause after each number, with each song arousing plenty of back and forth interaction with the audience, with the camera finding individuals of interest, including Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones who are initially seen clapping near the back before later moved closer to the front. While they’d seen Aretha many times in performance, this is the first time seeing her in church. There are two invited guests who are openly acknowledged, gospel legend Clara Ward (Aretha would sing at her funeral just 7 months later), who actually spent time in the Franklin home mentoring a young Aretha, as she toured with her father (with whom she had a longtime romance), while also introducing her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, an infamous Detroit-based preacher who was a legend and a star even before she became one herself, known as the man with the “million dollar voice” for his radio sermons (supposedly earning $4000 an appearance in 1956 when Elvis Presley was earning $7500), some of which are in the Library of Congress, early on taking Aretha on the road with him. Known as one of the country’s most powerful black pastors, adamantly respectful of him, she loves hearing the praises of her father, who provides heartfelt remarks acknowledging his daughter’s gift at an early age, describing her as a “stone cold singer” who would infuse the black church into any song she performed.
One might be surprised by the generic look of this film, which is nothing remarkable, using no tricks of the trade, no interviews, no backstage moments, no signature shots, with photographers constantly swirling about, where most cameras remain in fixed positions, yet what they capture is nothing less than magnificent, raw and unfiltered, holding steady in close-up on Aretha’s face, where beads of sweat drip down her face and accumulate non-stop (as it happens, Aretha loves to keep the temperature high in her performances), with her father affectionately wiping his daughter’s brow in such a dignified manner while she performs at the piano before returning back to his seat, a simple gesture that must have been repeated over and over again from the early days when she had to stand on a chair just to be seen over the podium. But in this church, with this audience, it seems unusual that she’s never performing for the cameras, deadly focused on her task at hand, with viewers ever so fortunate to see such a rare artist at work, literally transfixed on the material, calmly enunciating every syllable, drawing out the dramatic tension in every turn of the phrase, with parishioners unable to contain themselves, spontaneously moving to her rhythms and inflections, with her singing holding a transfixing spell over the entire proceedings, with tears of joy streaming down people’s faces. You might not be expecting a Carole King song in church, certainly not in most churches, but when Aretha arranges “You’ve Got a Friend” mixed with “Precious Lord,” well, it’s a different kind of conversation, with a unique friend, but one that glorifies the name of God. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s hard not to believe Aretha, as there’s not a hint of insincerity anywhere, and that is the true power of her electrifying artistry. Accompanied by her own musicians, organist Kenneth Lupper, electric guitarist Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard Purdie on drums, with Pancho Morales on congas, no single instrument ever overpowers the sound of her own voice, much of which is contained and controlled in low registers before unleashing into the heavens with an unexpected onslaught of emotion that just releases all pent-up inhibitions, with dancing in the aisles and bodies gyrating all throughout the room. Pouring her heart out into the titular song, the same heightened moments are as dramatically appealing as on the album, with this song perhaps the centerpiece of the film, with Rev. Cleveland forced to take a private moment, literally overcome with emotion, while an elderly woman in front appears to faint (turning out to be Clara Ward’s mother), as her rendition is so mesmerizing and authentic, where even her humming the tune is just as eloquent as her soaring voice, deeply somber, unfazed by it all, where it’s just a conversation between a singer and her Lord, one they’ve apparently had a thousand times, yet this one is caught on film, preserved as a time capsule, an historic rendering of a singing prayer, an anthem of the times that is no less powerful today, as it speaks to the social injustice inherent in just being black, with all their struggles, the deaths, the grief and enduring despair, always having to overcome, yet she taps into the hopes and aspirations. While you’d think there’s no way they can top that, toward the end of the film they try, recalling “Never Grow Old,” an old favorite (the first song she ever recorded), but Aretha makes it her own, like rediscovering the fountain of youth, where the dream of heavenly eternity may have never been expressed with more eloquence and unbridled joy. With bodies swaying back and forth, she has the audience’s raptured attention, as they can’t take their eyes off that combustible energy that is her voice, finally winding down, with Aretha sitting down, with viewers thinking the song is over, but Rev. Cleveland hands her an outstretched microphone where she continues to sing while seated, capturing the essence of spiritual transcendence as it’s meant to be humanly experienced. It’s simply a phenomenal extension of her ability to retain focus, never veering for an instant, as she literally holds the entire congregation there, as if cradled in the arms of the Lord, so safe, so satisfying, such a beautiful rendering of eternal harmony and peace. For most viewers, the exuberance in the room will be hard to shake afterwards, as it’s like the living embodiment of a James Baldwin novel, or the experience of reading him for the very first time, as a brand new world opens, with new textures, complexities and insights. There was only one Aretha.