In 1972, 29-year-old Aretha Franklin, ‘Queen of Soul’, wishing to return to her gospel roots, chose to record an album live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a disused movie theatre, in Watts, Los Angeles. She was ably accompanied by the accomplished musicians of her regular touring band; the heavenly Southern California Community Choir, conducted by a rocking Alexander Hamilton; mighty Reverend James Cleveland, himself a gospel singer, songwriter and arranger, who taught Franklin piano; and her own father, the great preacher C.L. Franklin.
Warner Bros. brought in Sydney Pollack to shoot the recording, which took place over two nights and resulted in a double album that went on to become the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. Technical hitches relating to the syncing of sound and image, later resolved by more modern technology, and Franklin’s subsequent repudiation of the film – she claimed that the filmmakers didn’t have the right to use her image – led to its shelving and mythical status for nearly half a century.
Neither concert film nor music documentary, Amazing Grace is an electrifying experience of being-there-in-wonderment to be shared communally: Aretha, at the peak of her powers, is a spellbinding, incandescent presence. In a film crammed with high points, her extraordinary interpretation of the album’s titular song soars for a soul-scorching eleven minutes: her voice transcends, taking the choir and congregation, both in the church and in the cinema, with it, making you want to rise to your feet, dance, holler and weep. Sublime. — SR