A good documentary sucks you into its story, but a great documentary makes you part of its story, a participant in what’s going on. Watching a great nonfiction movie, you’re no spectator — you’re an essential part of the movie itself.
Most of us aren’t used to thinking of documentaries as anything more than didactic tools, but there’s always been one big exception: concert films. Which makes perfect sense, since concerts are experiential; at a concert, you don’t just listen to the music, you become part of the music, feeling it flow through your body. And a good concert film is the next best thing.
But even among the pantheon of great concert docs, the long-lost Amazing Grace — which Sydney Pollack filmed over two nights in 1972, as Aretha Franklin recorded the live album of the same name that would become one of her most acclaimed — is an extraordinary film, one that seems like it could stir even the most skeptical soul.
The reason for that seems clear: Amazing Grace is not just a concert movie, but a gospel music concert movie, and one filmed in a church. Not some staid, folded-hands church — a vibrant and animated black church, with a congregation who knows that if you’re sitting in your pew watching other people make music every week, you should probably go elsewhere. Church is no spectator sport.
Kept under a bushel for more than four decades while it was held up by both technical issues and lawsuits, it seemed like Amazing Grace would never see the light of day. But now it has finally been finished and released just months after the singer’s show-stopping funeral. And for its 87-minute runtime, those of us in the audience aren’t an audience at all. We’re bearing witness to one of the greatest performances of all time. We get to be part of a ritual of remembrance, a cry for mercy, and a long plea for justice. And if we’re just sitting there watching other people make music, we’re doing it wrong.
The concert film covers a two-night live recording session with more than a few surprises
Pollack was hired by Warner Bros. to document the recording of Franklin’s double LP Amazing Grace, which was destined to become one of the best-selling gospel records of all time. By 1972, Franklin was already the Queen of Soul, with hits to spare, and for her next project, she turned to the music she sang in her youth.
For two nights, January 13 and 14, they all set up at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles: Franklin, a recording crew, a documentary crew, a band, and the Southern California Community Choir, directed by Alexander Hamilton and led alternately from the piano and the pulpit by Rev. James Cleveland.
The church wasn’t full the first night, but the atmosphere was electric. The choir enters slowly, deliberately walking down the aisle from the back of the church to the front, as if they were coming into a wedding. They’re wearing metallic silver vests and singing Cleveland’s own song, “We Are On Our Way.” Then Franklin takes over, and you can feel the place heat up while she sings the gospel standards, like “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “How I Got Over,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
But by the second night, word has gotten out. Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a Baptist minister from Detroit, is in the front row, along with the gospel singer Clara Ward. And Pollack’s camera can’t help but find Mick Jagger, of all people, who starts out near the back of the room but can’t keep himself from moving forward. Rev. Franklin gets up to deliver his remarks at one point, and by the time Aretha wraps up, singing “Never Grow Old” from the piano, worrying the line like no other singer could, some people are so overcome, they need to be restrained from rushing the stage.
The camera roams through the room throughout, settling on faces in the crowd, almost entirely black faces, and occasionally diving into the choir. How it captures sweat and closed eyes and constant movement of those gathered — standing, sitting, raising hands, bowing in prayer — feels intimate.
And what the film provides that no record can is a look at Franklin’s face through all of this. She says almost nothing; Rev. Cleveland does most of the talking. Franklin is there to sing, and her composed, almost placid expression when she’s not singing is the picture of something like peace. Watching her, you get the feeling that she’s home.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” comes at the film’s midpoint, at the end of the first night of recording. It’s a slow, stirring rendition, one that pulls together the threads of the whole concert, which, in truth, is not just a musical event. Coming in 1972, on the heels of the civil rights movement, the reality of a still ongoing struggle for justice and equality and the wounds suffered by everyone in the room are woven throughout the songs about going home, about Jesus being a friend in times of need, about the Promised Land. At one point, Cleveland notes, sweat pouring down his face, that even 20 years earlier, in the thick of the fight, those assembled wouldn’t have known how gracious God would be to them to bring some justice.
Listening to Franklin and the choir, you know that fight is still deeply felt, and far from over. But that’s what makes the hymn’s lyrics thrum and vibrate: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares / I have already come / ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far / And grace will lead me home.”
Amazing Grace has been languishing for decades, but it’s finally got its audience
Two divine nights, but then disaster struck. Pollack shot 20 hours of raw footage but had somehow forgotten to use clapper boards, a key piece of technical equipment that would make it possible to sync audio and video. Editors tried to pull together the film, but the reels ended up gathering dust, unfinished.
Producer Alan Elliott caught wind of it while working as a record executive in the 1980s, and finally, in 2007, he bought the rights to the project from Warner Bros., mortgaging his house to do so. (In hindsight, one might think of a parable Jesus told, about a man who finds a precious pearl in a field, and sells everything he has to buy the field and thus own that “pearl of great price.”)
By 2010, it was possible to sync film and sound digitally. The film was completed. But Franklin sued Elliott, saying it was “appropriating her likeness without her permission”; she did the same in 2015 and 2016, preventing the film from being shown at the Telluride Film Festival.
Nobody really knew why Franklin continued to block the project’s release, especially since she had told the Detroit Free Press that she “loved the film itself.” Some speculated that it was painful for the aging Franklin to see herself singing “Never Grow Old,” which could feel like a kind of self-eulogy. Others pointed toward the fact that Franklin, not listed as a producer on the film, would likely not be able to make much money from it.
But Elliott attended Franklin’s funeral earlier this year at the invitation of Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and the executor of her estate, and the two began talking about the film. He flew to Michigan in September and showed it to about 25 members of Franklin’s family, and they loved it. So Owens decided to finally allow its release, so it could be seen by the public.
It’s impossible to know whether Franklin would have ever finally made that decision herself — but regardless, once her family signed off, the film could be released. It premiered in New York on November 12 at the DOC NYC festival, and will continue to play at festivals and get a limited, Oscar-qualifying release this year before ultimately opening in theaters next year, possibly around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
And thank goodness. People have been listening to Amazing Grace for decades, but watching the album get made is a full-on experience, body and soul. The crowd at my screening clapped and cheered and cried and sang along, just like the crowd onscreen. You can’t listen to Franklin’s full-throated rendition of “Amazing Grace” — a song written by a slave trader who had seen the light — without a spine shiver, and there’s no sitting still watching Amazing Grace either. For those 87 minutes, at least, everyone is a believer.
Amazing Grace premiered at DOC NYC on November 12 and will play limited engagements before its theatrical release in early 2019.