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At Z Movies: Amazing Aretha

At long last the 1972 documentary has been released to theaters. Courtesy photo.

The Grace of Gospel

By Kelly MacConomy

ALEXANDRIA, VA – At long last the documentary about the Queen of Soul’s 48-hour live-performance gospel recording, which collected dust in storage for over four decades at Warner Brothers, has been released. The wait has been as interminable as a full-length performance of the namesake hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin, whose celebrity at that point included eleven Number One singles and five Grammy awards, returned to her religious roots. The production crew knew that recording at the New Temple Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles would be a daunting challenge even with director Sidney Pollack in charge, along with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in a front pew.

Pollack was reaping the recent success of three Oscars and a Golden Globe for They Shoot Horses Don’t They. Jagger and Watts had sung “Salt of the Earth” on the Beggar’s Banquet album with the Watts Street Gospel Choir in 1968.

The Amazing Aretha Franklin. Courtesy photo.

The film also features the Reverend James Cleveland; Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin; and gospel legend Clara Ward. Alexander Hamilton doesn’t miss his shot either, as the director of the backup Southern California Community Choir.

Pollack was an outstanding film director but not an experienced musical documentarian. There were technical issues with sound syncing that even the most gifted editors of the time couldn’t reconcile, and the film was shelved. (The album sold two million copies.)

When Sydney Pollack died in 2008, producer Alan Elliott assumed control of the project. He mortgaged his house to buy the footage from Warner Brothers and, using advanced sound technology, transformed the disjointed recording and film imaging into a hand-clapping symphony of gospel glory.

The Queen of Soul recording her gospel album Amazing Grace, Los Angeles, 1972. Courtesy photo.

But release was further delayed by objections from the Queen herself. Perfection is the prerogative of great artistry. Still, a lady always knows when it is time to leave. Three months after her passing this past August, her estate green-lighted Amazing Grace.

The film was not available for screening until the world premiere on November 12, 2018. It was distributed in limited release this April, 47 years after the Queen of Soul’s inspirational two-day performance.

Amazing Grace is not only quintessential Aretha. It is seminal film making, reminiscent of the Judy Garland/James Mason version of A Star is Born. It celebrates a voice that arouses the soul and calls to God with all the fanfare of trumpeting angels. Amazing Grace is captivating. Organic and honest. Gospel truth. You will be riveted to the screen. At Z Movies gives it 100 percent Glory Hallelujah!

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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