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Aretha Franklin's lost concert doc is supposedly great, but she won't let anyone see it

Footage of Aretha Franklin from the trailer for the film Amazing Grace.
Footage of Aretha Franklin from the trailer for the film Amazing Grace.
Warner Brothers

Among the nearly 400 new films screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival are a slew of highly anticipated documentaries, including several centering on musical luminaries both past and present. Janis Joplin, Sharon Jones, Yo-Yo Ma, and Arcade Fire all appear in new docs premiering at TIFF, which kicks off Thursday, September 10.

As of a couple of days ago, that list also included one of the biggest musical names of the last half-century: Aretha Franklin, queen of soul and star of Amazing Grace, a rock-doc that portrays the recording of her 1972 gospel album of the same name.

Amazing Grace festival trailer.

But Amazing Grace won’t be showing at this year’s TIFF, just as it did not show at the just-ended Telluride Film Festival, where it was supposed to make its world premiere, and will not show at October’s Chicago Film Festival, which also planned to show the film.

Why? Franklin herself has stepped in to prevent it, with a Colorado judge granting her an injunction against the Telluride fest that prevented the screening, an injunction that kicked in just hours before the film's first showing. The injunction was granted on September 4. Four days later, anticipating further legal action, TIFF followed suit in canceling the screening, as did Chicago.

Why all the hubbub over what looks like an otherwise uncontroversial recording of a decades-old recording session? To answer that, we must first travel back to 1972.

Amazing Grace was originally filmed by legendary director Sydney Pollack, with Franklin’s cooperation

In January 1972, Sydney Pollack, hot off the success of his Oscar-nominated dance marathon film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, began filming the two-day Amazing Grace recording session at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles. That’s where the trouble began: Pollack — who had never filmed live music before — neglected to bring with him the clapperboards used to synchronize sound and picture.

Without the clapperboards signaling where sound and image should meet, Pollack was essentially left with an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle of a film. The church choir director was even brought in to help Pollack’s longtime editor, William Stein, lip-read the footage in an attempt to sync up the audio. But the arduous process was unfruitful, and the film was delayed again and again. Franklin’s Amazing Grace LP came out in June 1972 and sold millions, going on to become the best-selling album of her career and the highest-selling gospel album of all time.

Amazing Grace the film, meanwhile, went into the Warner Bros. studio vault for the next 38 years.

Producer Alan Elliott has been trying to revive Amazing Grace for years

A former Atlantic A&R staffer named Alan Elliott had been intrigued by Pollack’s lost film since he first heard about it in the ’90s, and met with the director in 2007 to discuss finishing the film. Then Pollack was diagnosed with terminal cancer, putting an end to those plans.

But Pollack gave Elliott his blessing to finish the film. Elliott claims the director told him, "You know this [material] better than I do. So I'm going to go to Warner Bros. and make sure you get to finish this movie." Elliott mortgaged his home to buy the negative from Warner Bros. in 2008, then spent the next two years digitally syncing the movie, meticulously completing Pollack's jumbled jigsaw puzzle. A trailer was cut in 2010, for a planned 2011 release.

Amazing Grace 2010 trailer.

That's when Franklin stepped in.

This is not the first time Franklin has kept Amazing Grace from seeing the light of day

Franklin filed a suit against Elliott in 2011 for "appropriating her likeness without permission." Elliott had been able to locate the original recording contracts for everyone involved with the film, except Franklin. So he backed off, and the film languished once more.

As it turns out, Franklin had signed a "personal services" contract with Warner Bros.’ film studio and record label, which gave the studio full rights to the material filmed in the church. (Warner Bros.' film and record branches had recently been brought together under the same corporate umbrella, and the Amazing Grace recording session represented one of the company's first attempts at the sort of cross-media synergy we know so well today.) But she had signed that contract in 1969, not 1972, which is why Elliott couldn’t find it. Until last year.

Now Elliott believes he has the full rights to the film. Franklin disagrees, with her most recent complaint citing the right to the use of her name and likeness, invasion of privacy, and more as reasons for blocking Amazing Grace from its Telluride screening.

The Telluride complaint also claims that Pollack’s footage "was taken with the express understanding that it would not be used commercially without agreement and consent by Ms. Franklin."

Why does Franklin object so much to this film being seen?

It’s not entirely clear. Franklin told the Detroit Free Press that she "love[s] the film itself," and her problems with Amazing Grace concern its legality, not its content. Elliott, for his part, has made clear that he would welcome Franklin’s involvement with the film.

But Franklin — or rather, her lawyers — are of the opinion that Elliott signed away his rights to the film when he agreed not to release it in 2011. Thus, the Warner Bros. contract he uncovered last year doesn’t extend him the rights to release the film now.

But none of that really answers the question of why Franklin and her lawyers are pushing back so hard against a film that, by all accounts, is a stirring depiction of the artist at the height of her powers. Elliott says he see it as her "crowning achievement." And no less an authority than the Roots’ Questlove is of the opinion that it’s "Oscar material."

Of all the "inside industry" stuff I've been privy to learn about NOTHING has tortured my soul more than knowing one of the GREATEST recorded moments in gospel history was just gonna sit on the shelf and collect dust. Many people have told me rumors about it since before I had a deal. @NelsonGeorge & @JohnLegend both told me they seen it w their own eyes. Long story short in 1972 #AhmetEurtegun commissioned #SydneyPollack to document #ArethaFranklin's historic New Temple Missionary Baptist Church return to her gospel roots. The 5 mins I saw of the clip back in 2011 had me JAW DROPPED even #TheRollingStones came to the hood and sat like deacons w the elders fresh in their muddy Main St. glory KNOWING this was history in the making: Aretha singing gospel. The 6 times I've been in presence of the queen I didn't bother w niceties like "can I take a photo" or "when will we play together on the show!?" even before I redo introductions I plead much to her chagrin "please sign off on this film so the world can truly know you are the greatest" I thought it fell on deaf ears. I was wrong. I'm glad I'm wrong. This is EASILY Oscar documentary material. This suffering can stop for its almost about to come in theaters: thank you Alan Elliot!!!! #AmazingGrace!!! (Clip from @candytman Mathieu Bitton)

A video posted by Questlove Gomez (@questlove) on

But Judge John L. Kane of the United States District Court for Colorado said in his emergency order last Friday that "a film that essentially recreates the entire concert experience is not fair use of this footage," and maintains that commercial use of the footage requires Franklin’s express permission — which she has thus far refused to give.

This means, frustratingly, that this all likely boils down to money. TIFF and other international festivals of its ilk are where films like Amazing Grace are bought by distributors for theatrical and home video distribution. Since it appears Franklin is not named as a producer on Amazing Grace, she likely doesn’t stand to make much, if any, money off such a deal, nor from any promotional (or awards season) appearances it might lead to. Neither Franklin’s lawyers nor Elliott have indicated whether this is indeed the case (though Judge Kane's ruling does say that "Ms. Franklin has a strong interest in her rights of publicity"), but given the circumstances, it seems to be the most likely scenario.

So will we ever get to see this movie?

Hopefully! Judge Kane’s order is only good for 14 days, and there are a lot more film festivals on the horizon once that period has passed. There’s a screening planned next week in Los Angeles that may still go off, and other smaller, non-festival screenings of its ilk aren't off the table. If, indeed, the trouble here stems from an issue with distribution royalties, it’s entirely possible Franklin’s lawyers may not interfere with a small, non-festival screening where royalties aren't an issue.

But really, it’s in everyone’s best interest to resolve this conflict, and sooner rather than later. If Amazing Grace is as good as everyone says it is, it may put the film — and by extension, Franklin — in the conversation come awards season.

But more importantly than that, Amazing Grace represents a lost piece of history, both musical and filmmaking. To let it sink and disappear into a legal quagmire would be a huge disservice to the legacies of Franklin and Pollack, not to mention music and film fans everywhere.

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