It once was lost, but now is found.
Well, not lost, exactly. But for 46 years, there seemed to be precious little hope that “Amazing Grace,” the documentary filmed during the live recording sessions of Aretha Franklin’s soaring 1972 gospel album of the same title, would ever see the light of day. The album was recorded over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, where Franklin performed gospel classics before a visibly enraptured congregation. Into this space, an up-and-coming director named Sydney Pollack brought a small crew equipped with 16 mm cameras and chronicled the making of a masterpiece.
Presided over by the gospel legend and pastor James Cleveland, the event was a concert, a recording session, a church service and a revival — not of the Queen of Soul’s career, which was doing just fine (she had already recorded more than 20 albums and won five Grammys), but of the gospel roots that some critics claimed she had abandoned for secular pop/R&B success. Franklin had the final word: “Amazing Grace” became not only her best-selling disc but also her greatest achievement, a thrillingly sustained performance by an artist at the heavenly peak of her powers.
Similar hosannas might well have greeted the film at the time, but Pollack and his crew neglected to slate the shots, leaving them with hours and hours of footage with unsynced picture and sound. The Warner Bros. project was never completed and instead languished for years, until the footage was purchased by producer Alan Elliott, who spearheaded a restoration effort with editor Jeff Buchanan. But Franklin sued Elliott in 2011 for using her likeness without her permission, and in 2015, she blocked the film from screening at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
I was at Telluride that year and still remember the sense of deflation at the last-minute news that this purported Holy Grail of concert docs would not be showing after all. The reasons Franklin fought to keep the public from seeing a movie she claimed to love are complicated; the reasons that movie is finally before us are not. Shortly after Franklin’s death in August, Elliott screened the picture for the singer’s family. Their embrace was warm and immediate, and they gave their blessing for the movie to be seen, and heard, in all its soul-shaking glory.
Opening Friday for weeklong awards-qualifying runs at Laemmle theaters in Santa Monica and Pasadena, “Amazing Grace” is still on the lookout for an American distributor. I suspect it may find one, but don’t let that stop you from going in the meantime; the movie is an unmitigated joy. It’s also a captivating artifact, the rare making-of documentary that doesn’t just comment on but completely merges with its subject. The lift-you-to-the-rafters intensity of Franklin’s voice remains so pure and galvanic that “Amazing Grace” is one of the few movies you could watch with your eyes closed, though you would hardly want to.
You would miss, for starters, the enormous painting of Jesus hanging in front of what looks suspiciously like a cinema screen, and rightly so: The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was once a movie theater, not a bad omen in retrospect. You would miss the glimpses of Franklin’s great collaborators, including not only drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Chuck Rainey, but also the smiling, silver-vested singers of the powerhouse Southern California Community Choir.
You might miss too the brief moment when the spotlight throws a halo around the choir’s ebullient director, Alexander Hamilton, as he navigates the singers through Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.” Most of all, you’d miss the sight of Aretha Franklin herself, a vision in her shimmering caftans. Whether she’s seated at the piano or standing at the dais, or conferring briefly with the others in front of the altar, she radiates an otherworldly calm. That remains so even after she starts spitting out almighty improvisations and running through vocal glissandos. The energy of her performance is electrifying; you see her sweat, but you never see her strain.
Franklin isn’t merely in her element; she’s among friends and family, performing alongside brothers and sisters who seem to be entirely on the same spiritual wavelength. “Amazing Grace” is, among other things, an ode to the bedrock sanctity of the black church and the expressive beauty of its worship. You see it in the waves of ecstasy that roll through the congregation as people leap to their feet and dance, and you see it when Cleveland stumbles into a pew and bursts into tears, completely overcome by Franklin’s performance of “Amazing Grace.” How sweet the sound indeed.
Something of Franklin’s near-mystical assurance seems to have rubbed off on Pollack and his crew, who navigate this crowded, confined space with masterly intuition. The camera always seem to be in the right place, whether it’s sweeping across the sanctuary to take in the congregation’s response, or catching sight of a young Mick Jagger listening in the back row, as captive as anyone else to the power of Aretha. It’s a testament to Buchanan’s editing, which shows little sign of the agony it must have been; the finished assembly has the immersive pull of a single, unmediated take. You fall effortlessly into its slipstream.
Something I’ve heard repeated in the wake of Franklin’s death and the film’s release is that her singing was transcendent enough to make even an atheist a temporary believer. It’s a lovely, justly idolatrous sentiment, even if this believer remains skeptical about that particular definition of “transcendence.” Aretha Franklin didn’t transcend the gospel or gospel music; as first her album and now this marvelous documentary remind us, she did more than most to fulfill its potential for truth and beauty, devotion and art.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica