Aretha Franklin movie ‘Amazing Grace’ pulled from Toronto Film Festival, but L.A. screening planned

Aretha Franklin in concert at the Microsoft Theatre in August 2015.

Aretha Franklin in concert at the Microsoft Theatre in August 2015.

(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
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The saga of the Aretha Franklin concert movie “Amazing Grace” has taken another turn, with producer Alan Elliott pulling the movie from the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its screening Thursday.

But Elliott hopes a screening could take place next week in Los Angeles even if a deal can’t be reached with the soul singer -- possibly in conjunction with a noted L.A. arts institution. A spokeswoman for WME, which is selling the film, said later in the day that as negotiations with Franklin continued, the screening remained an open question.

Elliott notified Toronto on Tuesday that the movie wouldn’t be shown at the festival after a legal battle with Franklin remained unresolved. The festival announced the move shortly after. In an interview, festival programming chief Thom Powers called the outcome “a pity,” noting that “Aretha has gone on record saying she loves the film.... I don’t think there’s anything controversial about it.”


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He said the festival had been “starting to gird itself for what it might mean to go ahead” before the call came from Elliott.

“Amazing Grace” offers an unfiltered look a 1972 gospel concert Franklin gave at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Footage was initially shot by the late Sydney Pollack for Warner Bros. and then fashioned in recent years into the finished film independently by Elliott, a former music-business veteran who teaches at UCLA.

The concert documentary was set to open the Telluride Film Festival last Thursday as well as Toronto this Thursday.

But Telluride lawyer Linda Lichter was notified Friday the festival was being sued as Franklin sought a temporary restraining order. Several hours later, District Judge John Kane granted the order, in what legal experts say was an unusual step for a film that was set to show at a festival.

At issue is whether Franklin has veto power over use of the footage. In the filing, the singer said she had that right, part of a 2011 settlement with Elliott. Franklin is seeking a deal before the film is shown, including a $1-million up-front free as well as a revenue-share arrangement, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to talk about them publicly.

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Elliott has said a 1972 personal-services contract between Franklin and Warner Bros. unearthed by the studio in 2013 makes that settlement moot and renders unnecessary any approval from Franklin on the film.

Reached by phone, Elliott said, “I can’t wait to show the movie to the world. I’m very disappointed we haven’t been able to show it yet.”

A Franklin spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment. Franklin was quoted in the Detroit Free Press several weeks ago as saying she’d seen and admired the movie. “It isn’t that I’m not happy about the film, because I love the film itself,” she said. “It’s just that — well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.” She went on to suggest she could file for an injunction.

If it moves forward, the screening in L.A. will officially be for the Southern California Community Choir, which is featured in the movie, but media and entertainment officials are expected to be invited. Elliott still hopes to bring the movie out in the spring, either independently or through a distributor. The Toronto and Telluride screenings were staged in part with the idea of attracting buyers; other distributor screenings will now take place.

The drama over the movie highlights the trickiness of documentaries featuring prominent personalities, especially where long-ago footage was concerned. The project was initiated by a filmmaker, Pollack, who died seven years ago and captures a star at a very different point in her career.

It also makes for some awkward entertainment industry relationships: Hollywood powerhouse agency WME also represents Franklin.


Meanwhile, at Telluride the developments made for a complicated mix of emotions for those involved in the film. Elliott described a weekend at which he and several of the other musicians were not sure how to feel as they made their way to various events.

“It was the greatest cognitive dissonance weekend of my life,” he said. “Everybody was so nice and wanted to see the movie. Alexander Payne, whom I’d never met, came up and gave me a hug. And then I’m lugging this DCP around that I can’t show anybody.”



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