Aretha Franklin is probably best known for her magnificent cover of “Respect”
which became the primary anthem for the late 60s/70’s second wave feminist
movement. Ironically the song was originally written by and performed by a male,
Otis Redding. Nonetheless, she sang it so well that the song became hers in the
public consciousness. Chain of Fools, Say a Little Prayer, (You Make me Feel Like) a Natural Woman and Think are other Aretha songs that have become classics.
Amazing Grace is an outstanding Aretha Franklin music concert film, which
displays the immense talent of the queen of soul in her prime. She passed away
last August (you might have seen one of the trillion news tributes) and this
unearthed concert film from the ‘70s serves as a fitting tribute to her talent.
The 1972 film documents an important occasion in music history. Like many of the
all-time soul greats including Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, and Sam Cook, Aretha
started out singing in church, then she started performing more secular numbers
(soul is gospel with lyrics about human love instead of God).
Franklin decided to record a live gospel album in front of an enthusiastic
audience of likeminded believers (as well as a pair of Rolling Stones) at the
New Temple Missionary Church in Watts, California (the same area was the setting
of the film Wattsstock.) The recording was released as Amazing Grace, named
after one of the songs on the LP, and it went on to become the bestselling
gospel album in music history. Surprisingly it was also Aretha’s bestselling
album ever and it is now considered a classic.
Sydney Pollack, the director of the terrific Tootsie and the over rated Out of
Africa, filmed the two-day sessions, and unbelievably the film was supposed to
be released on a double bill with the classic pimp antihero Blaxploitation film,
Superfly (which contains another of the best soundtracks of the 70s).
However, it was not to be, and the people who worked on the film were never able
to synchronize the sound and visuals well enough, so Amazing Grace sat on a
shelf until now. Pollack died in 2008, but the possibilities of new digital
technology allowed the studio to finally finish the film.
A musical admirer, Carmen McCrae once said of Aretha, “She doesn’t sing she
flies.” When Aretha pelts out such classic church hymns as What a Friend You
Have In Jesus, Wholy Holy and Never Grown Old (in the film she is often shot in
the light covered with sweat) she seems in a positively rapturous trance like
state. It is hard to imagine any one doing a better job within this genre, and
almost all the singing I have heard in churches, and almost all the current
stuff I hear on the radio pales in comparison.
Amazing Grace has some notable celebrity cameos including the Reverend
Cleveland; gospel legend, Clara Ward; her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin; plus
Rolling Stones members, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts around the time they were
recording Exile on Main Street.
There is only one reason why I did not award the film a full four stars. The
length of the film is a paltry 87 minutes. Since I know that over 30 songs were
recorded from the event, it is inexcusable that they held back so much
potentially great material. Perhaps they are waiting for the DVD release to add
more numbers. Nonetheless, after a deliriously exquisite almost hour and a half,
I was disappointed that there was not more to see. I could have sat through
another four hours.
The film opened in New York late last year for awards consideration, but it just
opened in the Chicago suburbs a few weeks ago.