TV Reviews : PBS' Populist Approach to 'Amazing Grace' Spiritual

For such a brief, simple and declarative song as "Amazing Grace," an hour-and-a-half film about its history and legacy may seem a little out of proportion. But producer-director Elena Mannes' contemplative, populist approach, with a very behind-the-scenes Bill Moyers, seems a primally American response to what is arguably the most universal spiritual song in English. It airs tonight at 9 on Channel 28 and at 8 on Channel 15.

The song contains a mysterious, unique power that no one can quite explain, but it is interesting to hear various lovers of the song try. Jessye Norman: " 'Amazing Grace' is almost like a talisman. It's like it's coming from the center of the earth." A participant in a Viper, Ky., family reunion: "Its roots reach so far down." Judy Collins, whose hit 1970 version brought it out of the church and into the street: "(With an audience), something else between us is being sung."

The film reminds us that every song has a history, and "Amazing Grace's" resounds with irony. It's author, John Newton (Jeremy Irons eloquently reads from his journals and letters), was a slave trader in the mid-18th Century who experienced a religious conversion and became a parish priest. The first verse's lyric--"Amazing grace/How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me"--is the clue to the song's deeply autobiographical sources. Today, it is the tune that unites Southern whites and blacks as no other.

Newton's self-reflection has clearly become a global fixture, the musical paragon of gentle strength in the face of adversity. Norman sings it to a raucous rock concert mob in London, and a hush falls across the hall. The Boys Choir of Harlem sings it in a Japanese auditorium, and the song comes through. The last word rightly comes from gospel giant Marion Williams, whose version stretches the notes and words into an epic, sonic journey.

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