AFI Fest Review: ‘AMAZING GRACE’ is celebratory, heavenly living history

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

AMAZING GRACE

Not Rated, 87 minutes
Directed by: Sydney Pollack (uncredited)
Starring: Aretha Franklin, Rev. James Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton, The Southern California Community Choir, Rev. C.L. Franklin, Clara Ward, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts

They say “good things come to those who wait.” However, no one could’ve predicted audiences would have to wait 46 years to see AMAZING GRACE. The music documentary features Aretha Franklin, The Southern California Community Choir, Reverend James Cleveland and choir director Alexander Hamilton delivering a sensational, standing-room-only, two-night performance at Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church back in January 1972.

Once envisioned by the late director Sydney Pollack as a cinematic companion piece to the Queen of Soul’s double platinum gospel album of the same name, the film languished on Warner Brothers’ shelves due to a massive mistake syncing picture and sound. Then a few decades later, after it had been revived through technological advancements, the subject herself legally blocked the film’s release. Now, with the Franklin family’s blessing, and due to the incredible efforts of producers Alan Elliot and Tirrell D. Whittley, the finished product feels like nothing short of a miracle in these troubled times. It doesn’t just take us to church – it lifts us up to the heavens.

In 1972, Franklin was at the height of her popularity, with eleven number one hit singles and five Grammys under her belt when she decided to return to the soul-nourishing gospel tunes that were part of her youth. Rev. Cleveland, who acts as the evenings’ emcee, exclaims “She can sing anything.” And boy does that feel like an understatement by the time the film ends. She makes non-believers believe. Dressed in a sparkly white caftan on the first night, and a flowy emerald green paisley print dress on the second, Franklin is in full command of the audience. We’re putty in her hands once the first notes of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” come pouring out. She wears the beads of sweat – a visual testimony to the work she’s done – proudly like an accessory, rarely wiping them away. She lets someone else do that.

Aretha Franklin and Rev. James Cleveland in AMAZING GRACE.

While the recorded music from those two evenings has flourished on the charts for years, there are plenty of small details Pollack and his crew capture that aren’t evident in the audio. This footage adds layers to the work that have remained largely unknown to anyone who wasn’t in the room on those January evenings. We see the chaos as the crew plots and scrambles to set up their equipment before the show, but then quickly adapts for spontaneous moments that transpire during the live performance. We feed off the energy of it, like when the magnificently magnetic Rev. Cleveland tosses a handkerchief at the camera, or when the audience dances in the aisles, or when the stoic choir is so moved by the spirit (and Franklin’s powerful voice) that they pop up from their seats in joyful exuberance. You’ll find it impossible not to do the same. We’re even moved to tears during “Amazing Grace,” seeing Hamilton swoop in to play the piano after Rev. Cleveland is so overcome with emotion that he vacates the bench. Tiny moments like these serve to enrich the worship experience this type of music brings, fully engaging the audience.

By no means is this a traditional documentary with a slick sheen and heavy thematic commentary, but there’s a lot of character found in its rough, raw edges. It’s better classified as an astounding historical document and a celebration of the black church. This rapturous living history is a cinematic testament to what transpired and who was there to witness the spirit conjured by Franklin’s powerhouse performances. Not only do celebrities like The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Reggie Watts show up, but her mentor, beloved gospel artist Clara Ward, and father Rev. C.L. Franklin are seated in the front row – and appear to be just as dazzled by Franklin and the choir as the rest of the audience is.

Whether you’re religious or not, when Franklin sings about the Lord and heavenly places, you believe she’s the angel who can take you there if you just close your eyes and listen to her voice.

Grade: A+

AMAZING GRACE played AFI Fest on November 15. It’s playing a one week awards qualifying run until November 29 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica.

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