“Amazing Grace” is coming home.
Nearly half a century after Aretha Franklin appeared at a modest Baptist church in South Los Angeles, resulting in a gospel album that would become one of the undisputed high points of her estimable career, the long-mothballed film documenting the moment is set for what figures to be an emotionally charged premiere on Sunday in that same church.
Surviving members of the Southern California Community Choir who backed her, along with their exuberant director, Alexander Hamilton, will revisit the site of a pair of events that most consider one of the defining experiences of their lives: singing alongside the Queen of Soul and celebrated gospel musician the Rev. James Cleveland for an audience that included Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, gospel music star Clara Ward and a couple of Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.
“We were rehearsing for weeks prior to Aretha coming,” choir member Bobby Washington recalled of the 1972 recording session at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, describing the experience vividly despite the intervening four decades. “When it was time for her to come in [and rehearse with them], Rev. Cleveland was at the piano and she starts singing like, what? We couldn’t believe it. Just to be a participant in the presence of her. It was like, ‘Dang, this could not be happening.’”
Yet several decades went by when Washington and the choir’s other members thought the film might never see the light of day. The tale of the decades-long delay in finishing the movie, directed by Academy Award then-nominee Sydney Pollack, has been well chronicled, as has its star’s historical reluctance to allow it into the public eye.
But since Franklin’s death last August at age 76, her family and estate have given their blessing to the efforts of music industry veteran Alan Elliott, who bought the rights to the film more than a decade ago and has been working tirelessly ever since to share it with the world.
Following Sunday’s invitation-only screening and several other premieres in various cities that held special meaning to Franklin, “Amazing Grace” will break out in 1,000 theaters across the nation over Easter weekend.
It received rapturous reviews during one-week Academy Award qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York last winter.
“The movie is an unmitigated joy,” Times film critic Justin Chang wrote last year. “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.”
In the film, Franklin applied her distinctive vocals to traditional gospel numbers such as “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Precious Lord” as well as then-contemporary material including Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”
In the last few months, Elliott landed a distributor — New York-based Neon — and brought filmmaker Spike Lee onboard as a co-producer.
“I saw it in New York when it had the short [qualifying] run at the Film Forum, and it was mesmerizing and transformative,” Lee told Variety recently. “It’s elevating. It’s spiritual. This, I think, is one of the seminal moments in American recording history.”
Elliott also has enlisted Time Inc. as a corporate partner in bringing “Amazing Grace” to the public.
“I’ve been with Alan going through some of the ups and downs, and I feel as though the way things have happened, this is how it was supposed to happen,” said Tirrell Whittley, Elliott’s producing partner and founder and chief executive of Liquid Soul Media, an Atlanta marketing and promotion firm that specializes in arranging group screenings for African American audiences.
“Some of it was unfortunate,” he added, “and of course we would love to have Miss Franklin with us. We always respected her wishes; we were always courteous to her in regard to her desires and the timing of things.”
The idea of shooting a film as Franklin made a gospel album was intended to elevate her career to a new plane. She’d charted 11 No. 1 R&B hits in the previous five years and was widely regarded to be the Queen of Soul. As other singers such as Barbra Streisand had found success in the movies, Franklin’s camp thought she might do the same, and Pollack, coming off his Oscar nomination as best director for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” was hired to film the project.
The performances were events in themselves, within the African American community and beyond. Jagger and Watts dropped in because they were in Los Angeles.
But Pollack and his crew neglected to slate the scenes so the video could later be synchronized with the audio. Consequently, thousands of feet of film sat in boxes for decades.
Until Elliott came along.
He’d been an executive at Atlantic Records, Franklin’s label during her prime in the 1960s and well into the ’70s, and had long been a fan of the “Amazing Grace” album, which reached No. 7 on the Billboard 200 national album sales chart and No. 1 on the R&B and gospel charts. It’s widely reputed to be the biggest-selling gospel album of all time.
When he discovered that not only had those performances been filmed, but that they were shot by Pollack, he flipped. He talked to Atlantic co-owner and Franklin’s regular producer, Jerry Wexler, about completing it. He mortgaged his house and in 2007 and purchased the rights to the unedited film stock.
A combination of technology that wasn’t available in 1972 and Elliott’s hiring of a lip-reader allowed him and a team of film technicians to create a coherent version of the film.
But even after seven years of work — Pollack died in 2008 — he encountered another roadblock: Franklin herself. It’s never been entirely clear why she resisted giving the film her blessing.
Twice when Elliott was preparing to exhibit the edits of the film — in 2011 and again in 2015 — Franklin sued to stop them. A court barred Elliott from screening it four years ago at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado just minutes before the screening was to begin, allowing it to be shown only to exhibitors and not the press or members of the public.
Franklin commented on occasion that her objection wasn’t because of the content of the movie. “I love the film itself,” she once explained to the Detroit Free Press. “It’s just that — well, legally, I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.”
Whatever they ultimately were, those problems have been resolved, clearing the way for Elliott, Whittley and Neon to set up the national exhibition over Easter weekend, timing that all concerned say is befitting the spiritual heart of Franklin’s performance.
Special engagements are planned in locations chosen for their resonance with Franklin’s career, both as a singer and a civil rights activist. It will be exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Ala., the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum in Atlanta and the New Bethel Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit, where her father preached.
But those may have a hard time matching the resonance as the event at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A.
“I listened to that [‘Amazing Grace’] song every Sunday and still listen to it regularly as a part of my meditation,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He is supporting the film screenings as well as efforts underway to help get the state to grant the church historic status and to get the Southern California Community Choir a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
“I think that gospel music was then and is, in many ways now, the soundtrack for many people’s lives,” Ridley-Thomas said, who plans to attend Sunday’s screening with civil rights activist the Rev. William J. Barber II, another prominent supporter of the film. “At that time it was the soundtrack for the civil rights movement, and Aretha’s connection with the civil rights movement is well documented. … All this brings a certain kind of coherence to the narrative. That’s why we are doing what we’re doing.”
Elliott pointed to one example of how much the event means to the gospel community.
“Mary Hall, one of the choir members, she’s actually putting together the screening here in Los Angeles,” Elliott said. “She’s been incredibly helpful. … She’s doing everything: she’s doing posters, and recently she said to me, ‘When we did the original filming and recording, we sold fried chicken in the back. We should do that for the movie.’