A long-lost documentary of a 1972 Aretha Franklin concert in Los Angeles has become the subject of a legal dispute, with the singer filing for an injunction against it screening at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday. Festival organizers initially said they aimed to move forward with the screening, but later in the day the judge issued a temporary restraining order and blocked the screening.
“Ms. Franklin has a federal statutory right to protect her concert footage from being broadcast or distributed without her permission,” Colorado District Judge John Kane wrote in his ruling. “A film that essentially recreates the entire concert experience is not fair use of this footage.”
He also stated that Franklin has a high probability of winning the case — a prerequisite for such rulings — and said that Franklin’s presumed rights to the footage meant she could prevent the movie from being screened.
The temporary restraining order is valid for 14 days as the case moves forward. That essentially precludes Telluride from showing the film; the festival runs only a few days.
A spokeswoman for Telluride released a statement Friday afternoon after the ruling that the festival would abide by the decision and replace the screening with another film, “Sherpa,” about Himalayan mountain guides.
The Franklin film, “Amazing Grace,” offers an unfiltered performance by the soul icon at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Franklin said in a complaint that the film amounts to an “invasion of privacy” because she never consented to the filming for this purpose.
The work is credited as a “film by Sydney Pollack”; it also is scheduled to screen next week at the Toronto International Film Festival. As of Friday afternoon, executives at the Canadian festival said they had heard of no legal action and planned to screen the movie. That statement, however, came before the ruling; it is unclear how Franklin’s victory will affect their plans.
Footage for “Amazing Grace"was shot by Pollack but was never fashioned into a film because the technology to sync audio and video did not exist at the time, leaving only a small fraction of the 20 hours of material usable.
Alan Elliott, a former music producer who teaches at UCLA, reclaimed the film seven years ago after Pollack’s death, honoring a deathbed request from Pollack that Elliott finish the movie. He synced the audio quickly but was held up in legal limbo after initial studio Warner Bros. first contested Elliott’s rights to the material, then relented.
Franklin has been unhappy about the film for years, contending that the footage was shot for a particular aim at the time and that no one had the right to repurpose it all these years later. The singer sued Elliott about five years ago, seeking to stop him from finishing and distributing the film. In 2011, she and Elliott reached a settlement that he would not use the material without her consent. But he says that agreement became moot when WB found a personal-services contract from 1972 suggesting that Franklin did not have any claim to the use of the material.
Elliott said in an interview last month that he knew Franklin was not pleased and hoped she’d come around; attempts to show her the film via invitations to her representatives have yielded no response, he said.
Reached by email, Elliott declined to comment Friday. A Franklin rep, Gwendolyn Quinn, did not respond to a request for comment.
Telluride director Julie Huntsinger said she thought Franklin would like the film if she saw it.
“It’s a beautiful film,” she said. “She looks great in it. She should be proud of it."
According to Elliott, the film is not only a snapshot of Franklin and a moment in Los Angeles but also captures the music business as it transitions from a largely local and grass-roots enterprise to the more corporate arena-centric world of the present.
Thom Powers, the Toronto International Film Festival documentary programming chief, said earlier Friday that the fest will not change its plans and aims to screen the movie on Thursday, its opening day.
“We’re proceeding with plans to screen ‘Amazing Grace’ at TIFF. We haven’t heard of any legal procedures regarding the film in Toronto,” he said.
The movie does not yet have distribution, and it remains to be seen how the injunction or Franklin’s displeasure might affect a buyer. It is unclear whether Franklin’s ultimate goal is royalties or suppression of the film entirely. Attempts to negotiate have proved fruitless, Elliott said last month.
The mix of concert footage and film festivals can be a combustible one. In 1998, Courtney Love threatened to sue the Sundance festival if it went ahead with a showing of an unflattering documentary of her titled "Kurt & Courtney,” saying the filmmakers had no rights to the music included in the movie. The festival opted against showing it, and the film screened at the rival Slamdance Film Festival instead.
Zeitchik reported from New York; Keegan from Telluride.