The recently restored 1972 documentary Amazing Grace takes its name from Aretha Franklin’s gospel album, which was recorded live over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. As opening text informs us, Warner Bros. contracted director Sydney Pollack to record the event with four cameras as a promotion of the album, though sound-synching issues kept the film entangled in legal negotiations until this year. The belated release of Amazing Grace is a cause for celebration, as it offers a profound glimpse of one of the greatest and most influential voices in modern music, while sketching in a lively and resonant portrait of African-American culture.
Above all, Pollack underscores the vulnerability of possessing Aretha’s talent. The singer approaches the New Temple stage with a bearing that suggests a queen as well as a prizefighter, and we feel the exertion of her hitting one note after another for an extended period of time. Like most icons with the savvy to survive a brutal business for decades, particularly as a black woman, Aretha has a supernatural ability to discern when she’s being filmed, as one senses her weighing how much of herself to give to Pollack and the crowd.
Amazing Grace also shrewdly alludes to the powerful men with whom Aretha must contend so as to keep her world in check. Hosting this concert is Reverend James Cleveland, who once lived with the Franklin family and is said to have taught Aretha to play piano “by ear.” Aretha’s father, the powerful Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, sits in a front pew during the performance, and when Aretha looks to the camera, one wonders if she’s looking to him, considering how this concert represents a culmination of their lifelong collaboration, fulfilling the promise of her tours with him as a child. Or perhaps Aretha’s concentrating on hitting those phenomenal notes.
Pollack’s direction lacks the poetry of other landmark concert films, such as the doomy sensuality of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or the pointed jaggedness of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. Amazing Grace also thankfully lacks the smooth and sometimes impersonal pacing that would become Pollack’s trademark as a filmmaker. The strictures of the shooting format—two shooting days, live staging—force him to remain spontaneous, inspiring him to stage his greatest character study. Pollack lingers on the sweat on Aretha and Cleveland’s faces as they perform, emphasizing the visceral physicality of holding an audience’s attention at length, while drinking in the geography of the church and the intensifying reactions from the crowd. At one particularly moving moment, Cleveland retires to a seat and appears to weep from the power of Aretha’s singing.
Watching Amazing Grace, one understands Cleveland’s awe of Aretha. Even C.L. Franklin, as dapper and smug as he can be, appears to occasionally buckle under the weight of his daughter’s vocal power. (When Franklin eventually speaks to the audience, he calls Aretha a “stone cold singer,” giving her the benediction she might be seeking as her eyes furtively survey the crowd.) Aretha uses her voice almost like a trumpet, stretching certain words out so long they achieve an uncanny meaning, such as “amazing” in the title track. She informs such words with the vocal equivalent of negative space, which is where she imparts a vital suggestion of holiness that should be evident to most people, regardless of their religious orientation.
Aretha leeches gospel of platitude, emphasizing the transcendence that arises from the inherent purity of devotion. Devotion is also the subject of Aretha’s secular music, of course, whether she’s demanding it, as in “Respect,” or according it, as in “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.” And this thin thread between religious and secular music is explicated in Amazing Grace by Aretha’s exhilarating cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”
Aretha’s blurring of secular and religious music suggests that religion is essentially another form of pop art, with themes and formalistic functions that soothe audiences with catharses. Such ritualistic ecstasy is important to the African-American Christian community, for whom politics, religion, and networking are intimately wedded, in part as a reaction to the extreme cruelty and suppression they’ve experienced in this country.
Amazing Grace captures this element of Aretha’s life as well, showing how the shockingly unpopulated pews of the first night’s performance swell over the course of the second night, with audiences dancing in rapt exaltation, offering a visual metaphor of struggles surmounted, as this little show by a one-of-kind legend comes to earn the fervor it deserves. Aretha’s honor of gospel staples is a homecoming, an assertion of values after years of meteoric fame. Aretha implicitly tells this audience that she’s still among them, and that she hasn’t forgotten the glorious kinship that art, including religion, can foster when wielded earnestly and passionately.