Thursday, May 2, 2019

Movie Review: Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace **** / *****
Directed by: Sydney Pollock & Alan Elliott.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded the bestselling Gospel album of all time, over two nights at New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts in Los Angeles. She was joined on stage by Pastor James Cleveland, and backed up by his great Community Choir, and performed in front of a large congregation, who were encouraged to be as loud as they wanted to. Franklin could have, of course, recorded this in a studio, but she wanted to get the feel of a Baptist service for the album, and thought the best way to do that was live. The great filmmaker Sydney Pollock (who had already made They Shoot Horses Don’t They? at this point) was hired to film the two-day event for television – but because of some kind of technical error, syncing the audio with the visual was impossible at the time, and so the footage sat in the vault for 35 years with no one looking at it. As Pollock was dying of cancer in 2008, he gave the footage to Alan Elliot, in the hopes that a film could be completed. It took a while – technical challenges, legal battles, etc. – stymied the release. And now, finally, we all get a chance to see it.
It is amazing to see this film – mainly because it’s amazing to see Franklin sing these songs – songs that obviously meant a lot to her, and that she pours everything into over these two nights. Franklin doesn’t really speak in the documentary – I don’t remember her doing so anyway – but instead does all her speaking in the singing. There is a lot of talk in between the songs – but it’s almost all done by Reverend Cleveland, who if he were a fictional character, who would say he was a little too much of a clichéd black Baptist Preacher – as he does everything you expect him to do. He’s funny and charming, playing with the audience, but also capable of delivering his sermons – getting his meaning across. The other major speech is by Franklin’s father – another black preacher, a little less clichéd than Cleveland, but that could be because he’s speaking from the heart about his daughter.
But let’s be honest, if you watch the movie, you are watching to hear Aretha Franklin belt out these sings – and she does not disappoint. This is an artist at the height of her powers, knows it, and pushes herself even farther. Since the album was such a hit, you may well know these songs – and these renditions of those songs – better than I did, but you’ll still want to watch the film to see Franklin belt out the songs. And to the see the reaction from the congregation and crowd (including some celebrities, who don’t speak and aren’t even introduced in the film). The best reactions may be those of the choir members themselves – they are a great choir, and they can see – and they are still in awe of what she does.
It’s also interesting to see the film because it’s almost a documentary about the making of itself. Pollock and his crew are visible throughout the film – perhaps had he assembled it at the time, he would have picked different shots to edit himself, and his camera people out. As it stands, it’s interesting to see them all work – see them film, and all the work they did. Most of it undone because of a silly mistake by Pollock.
But man, the music. If you have any interest in this film, see it in a theater. You want to experience it there – where it can have the biggest impact. For the second time this month, we have a film that will likely go down as one of the best concert docs in recent memory – this one uncovered at long last and released so we can all see it.

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