With Toronto screening, ‘Amazing Grace’ comes to the end of a long road
About seven years ago, the former record producer Alan Elliott received a call from Sydney Pollack. The director was very ill, and he had a request of Elliott, who had done some early work with Pollack on the filmmaker’s unfinished 1972 Aretha Franklin concert movie at Warner Bros.
“Sydney wanted me to finish the film after he died,” recalled Elliott, who now teaches at UCLA. “It had been this mythical thing when I worked at Atlantic Records, and I had always been curious about it. It turned out to be an amazing document, and Sydney wanted me to see it through.”
The road from there would hardly be smooth: The film faced a legal challenge from Franklin, skepticism from Warner Bros. and a host of technical obstacles involving the audio that caused the movie to sit on the shelf for nearly four decades.
But Elliott, 51, decided to press on, financing the movie, about the eponymous live double album that Franklin and backup vocalists recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, out of his own pocket. And now the fruits of that effort — billed as a “Sydney Pollack film” and titled “Amazing Grace” — will finally see the light of day, with the Toronto International Film Festival announced Tuesday that “Amazing Grace” will be part of its supersized lineup of 31 documentaries.
Many of the Toronto movies will concern music. Oscar winner Barbara Kopple will debut her new movie, “Miss Sharon Jones!,” about the personal and professional struggles of the titular R&B singer. The festival also will have the North American premiere of “Thru You Princess,” Ido Haar’s film that tracks the Israeli YouTube mixologist Kutiman’s discovery of a New Orleans musician known as Princess Shaw.
The influence of Yo-Yo Ma, meanwhile, will be documented with the world premiere of “The Music of Strangers,” the follow-up from Oscar winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) focusing on Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble collective, while the director Kahlil Joseph will examine a rather different musical genre in “The Reflektor Tapes,” a glimpse behind the scenes of the Arcade Fire record.
“It’s hard to say they’re capitalizing on a wave because they come from so many different places, but in a year when ‘Amy’ is the top-grossing documentary, there’s certainly a lot of interest in these stories,” said Thom Powers, who runs Toronto’s docs section, referencing the recent Amy Winehouse movie.
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Toronto has become a premiere launching pad for documentaries, with movies such as the 2013 Oscar nominee “The Act of Killing” and last year’s award-season favorites “Red Army” and “Finding Vivian Maier” making key stops there. Documentary filmmaking has grown exponentially with the rise of digital filmmaking, offering deep reservoirs for a mega-fest like Toronto. The sector has been further bolstered by the emergence of platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, which have been acquiring documentaries as part of their slates of scripted fare.
The festival this year decided to reallocate slots in other sections and give more berths to nonfiction films; the slate is more than 50% larger than the lineup in 2014.
But few stand out like “Amazing Grace.”
About 20 hours of footage were shot at the Los Angeles church for the double album, which would go on to become one of the highest-selling live gospel records of all time.
But the audio and footage did not sync up, and Warner Bros. and Pollack were left with only about 150 minutes of usable material. The film languished until Elliott and Pollack began working on it shortly before the director’s death in 2008. After Pollack died, Elliott quickly found a postproduction facility that, with the help of modern technology, could salvage all 20 hours.
But the legal questions with Warner Bros. remained as the parties haggled for five years over who owned rights until the studio finally relented. During this time, Elliott said, he refinanced the mortgage on his home several times to pay for the rights to the movie as well as the legal bills.
Meanwhile, in 2011, Franklin sued Elliott over use of her name. The two eventually reached a settlement in which the movie would not be released without Franklin’s consent, but the agreement became moot, Elliott said, when Warner Bros. later dug up a personal-services contract that underscored that Franklin did not own any rights to the film.
The singer has made no indication she will support the movie; attempts to show it to her, Elliott said, have been unsuccessful. A representative for the singer would not comment on the film Tuesday.
“Amazing Grace” does not yet have distribution. Elliott said he aims to retain digital rights and hopes to put it on iTunes and other new-media platforms in the spring; he is open to theatrical offers. (The Telluride Film Festival is likely to play the movie the week before Toronto, though that lineup has yet to be confirmed.)
With renditions of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “Climbing Higher Mountains,” Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” performance is considered a bridge between the more informal churchgoing music era and the mega-business that soul and R&B would soon become. Footage of Franklin walking alone down an aisle in the movie suggests a level of intimacy uncommon to most modern acts. The film features no talking heads, and even Franklin herself says only a few words.
“I don’t want to oversell it, but if it’s not the premiere document of Americana popular music, it’s close, in my opinion,” Elliott said. “There are not too many that get into this conversation.”
Elliott used an editor, Jeff Buchanan, who has done work on the films of Michel Gondry, including the filmmaker’s similarly intimate Dave Chappelle movie, “Block Party.” Pollack’s two surviving daughters have not been involved in the making of the film. (The director does appear numerous times in the movie helming the action.)
The documentary lineup at Toronto will also include a strong backbone of internationally themed movies. They include “He Named Me Malala,” Davis Guggenheim’s much-anticipated look at the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai; “Winter on Fire,” Evgeny Afineevsky’s investigation into the revolutionary events that rocked Ukraine a year and a half ago; and “Je Suis Charlie,” Emmanuel and Daniel Leconte’s movie that profiles cartoonist victims in France’s Charlie Hebdo attacks.
In a similar geopolitical vein, the festival previously announced that Michael Moore’s military picture, “Where to Invade Next,” a movie he shot and edited entirely on the sly, will make its world premiere at the festival.
Also on Tuesday, the Toronto festival announced the films for Midnight Madness, its nocturnal genre slate. Among the world premieres this year are the horror anthology “Southbound,” the supernatural tale “The Devil’s Candy” and the slasher movie “The Girl in the Photographs,” executive produced by Wes Craven.
The 11-day Toronto gathering, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will kick off Sept. 10 with the world premiere of Jean-Marc Vallée’s wounded Wall Streeter tale, “Demolition.”
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