The long journey of ‘Amazing Grace,’ the film document of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel recording sessions
Mick Jagger talks about a certain Aretha Franklin performance that’s indelibly etched in his memory as if it happened last week, not 46-plus years ago.
“It was a really electrifying performance she gave, it raised the hair on the back of your neck,” the Rolling Stones co-founder and lead singer told The Times recently of the session he and the Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts dropped in on while visiting Los Angeles to work on the group’s 1972 album, “Exile on Main Street.” “It was a super-charged performance, a different Aretha on that day than I had experienced before.”
He’s remembering the historic gospel sessions Franklin delivered in collaboration with gospel music titan Rev. James Cleveland that were recorded and released in 1972 on her album “Amazing Grace,” a project that was simultaneously filmed by Sydney Pollack, who’d been nominated in 1970 for an Academy Award for his direction of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Astonishingly, the film sat on the shelf for decades, unfinished.
In November, it screened in one-week theatrical engagements in Los Angeles and New York for Academy Awards consideration, but now having secured a distributor is on track for additional screen time in 2019. That’s thanks to the years-long efforts by producer Alan Elliott, who bought the raw footage in 2007 and ultimately figured out how to overcome the technical and contractual hurdles that kept it out of the public eye for so long.
“One of the things that made it really interesting,” Jagger said, “is that you were there, you were involved. Being there in a church, you’re part of the experience — you’re not just a member of an audience somehow. You’re not in a posh seat sitting down, where you’ve paid your money and you’re like ‘OK, entertain me.’ It was not that feeling. It was a very different vibe than a normal concert … I think I was singing along.”
In fact, Jagger can be seen briefly on screen not only mouthing words to some of the songs, but moving his body in rhythm to the music as well.
“I’m really glad it’s finally coming out to the world,” he said.
The biggest hurdle technically was the absence of one crucial element of filmmaking: the clapboards used at the start and end of scenes that allow filmmakers to synchronize the visuals with the audio. Lacking that, finishing “Amazing Grace” became a technical nightmare.
Additionally, for reasons that were never entirely clear, Franklin herself didn’t want the film released. Even after Elliott and his collaborators solved the synchronization problem several years ago and made attempts to screen it at film festivals, Franklin objected. She famously sued in 2015 to halt planned exhibitions of the movie at Telluride and Toronto.
Since Franklin’s death in August, however, Elliott has continued working with her estate, and members of her family who have supported the film’s release.
Like Jagger, others involved with the recording sessions, which took place at Cleveland’s recently opened New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in Watts, recall the experience vividly and, for the most part, fondly.
“It was 1972, Aretha was at the top of her game,” said Alexander Hamilton, then the choir director working under Cleveland to rehearse and then lead the sings chosen to support Franklin during the recording sessions. “The fact that we were going to do anything with Aretha was a big deal — we just didn’t know how big a deal it was going to become.”
In fact, Hamilton emerges on screen as something of a costar to Franklin, Cleveland and the choir itself — something that wasn’t readily apparent on the audio recording. The film brings a long overdue validation of his role in the proceedings.
“I’m so glad this is finally out,” Hamilton said. “You hear the choir on the album, but you can’t see me. All I could say [for years] is that I was on the album, but I stopped because it would sound like I was trying to use this for name-dropping.”
Hamilton also helped shape the arrangements Franklin used on numerous gospel standards, going back to influential gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” as well as the more contemporary secular material that Franklin sang to keep things current.
Among those were Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” (which she segues into from the Dorsey song) and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” with which she opens the proceedings with an instantly galvanizing vocal.
For choir member Bobby Washington, who still sings regularly in the L.A. area as a member of three different gospel groups, the experience remains not just a career highlight, but a peak life moment.
“We rehearsed for almost a month prior to when she got here so we could have it down pat,” Washington said. “When she came to rehearse, we knew our parts.
“After Aretha died, one of the TV stations came out to interview me, and I had a chance to go back to the church,” he said. “This chill just came over me and ran through my body like it just happened yesterday. I showed them, ‘This is where I was standing,’ and I remembered having this feeling [at the time] that this place will never be the same again because of the intensity of the music. Aretha just turned it upside down.”
Various aspects of “Amazing Grace” have been the subject of debate over the years, not the least among them whose decision it was to bring in the rhythm section that always accompanied Franklin at her secular shows for this gospel performance.
In David Ritz’s 2014 biography “Respect — the Life of Aretha Franklin,” Jerry Wexler, Franklin’s longtime producer at Atlantic Records, said: “I was determined to sneak the devil’s rhythm section into church.
“It was fine for Aretha to pick the choir,” Wexler told Ritz. “She loved James Cleveland, and James was a great choice. But I needed my guys — Bernard Purdie on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass, Cornell Dupree on guitar and Pancho Morales on congas — to keep the rhythm right.”
When Ritz put the question to Franklin, she said it was all her doing. “She saw no contradiction in using secular musicians in a sacred service and said that Wexler’s notion of sneaking in the devil’s rhythm section was absurd,” Ritz wrote. “She wanted the best players, the best choir and the best songs.”
Rainey said he and his fellow musicians can’t necessarily resolve that question. “We were sidemen, we were her band, and we usually weren’t involved in a lot of the stuff that went on behind the scenes,” he told The Times in a separate interview last week.
What he could say with certainty, however, was that, “We were her band, and where she went in those days, we went.”
Rainey speculated that part of the reason Franklin might have resisted allowing the film to be screened despite all the effort Elliott and his team put into completing it may have been some of those backstage dynamics.
“Everything outside the music itself was a little bit Hollywood, production-wise,” Rainey said. “As I viewed the film, I felt it was more about James Cleveland, [gospel singer] Clara Ward and Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, than it was about her. But as side musicians, all you know is you’re there, playing with Aretha, and all the songs were perfect for her because it was a gospel album. Working with Aretha was always a pleasure.
“She was fantastic,” Rainey said. “Definitely what she did with her voice at those sessions was amazing.”
He flatly rejected the theory that her objection had anything to do with quibbles over how much she would be paid for her appearance in the film.
“Money had nothing to do with it,” he said. “She was wealthy, she was already a millionaire, and she was signed to Atlantic.”
Elliott has his own feeling about what troubled the film’s star.
“I know why she was mad,” he said. “I only met her once, for about eight seconds. But can you imagine being Aretha Franklin, who was legendarily a very exacting artist who has 11 No. 1 records in a row? She goes and makes what I think is one of the finest albums ever in popular music and is told by Warner [Bros.] Films they’re going to make it into this masterpiece. They hire Sydney Pollack [to direct] — and then they screw it all up?
“I don’t think she’s angry at a 7-year-old Alan Elliott,” he said referring to his age at the time the project unfolded. “She’s angry at Warner Bros. for not giving her her chance to be a movie star.”
Her attitude toward the project notwithstanding, the restored film has been drawing rave reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has received a 95% positive rating from critics based on 22 reviews.
“The movie is an unmitigated joy,” Times film critic Justin Chang wrote in his review. “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 New York Times, Wesley Morris wrote, “You get both the most lovely gaze a professional camera’s ever laid upon Aretha Franklin and some of the mightiest singing she’s ever laid on you.”
And in the New Yorker, Richard Brody called it, “A triumph of timeless artistry over transitory obstacles; its very existence is a secular miracle.”
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