Amazing Grace Too Timebound to Warrant its Kudos

Amazing Grace (2018/19)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Warner Brothers/Neon Films, 87 minutes, G
★★ ½

The story behind Amazing Grace is better than the film itself. In 1972, at the height of a career that would ultimately yield scores of top-selling singles, multi-platinum albums, and 18 Grammy Awards, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) took a step back to her roots in gospel music. Over the course of three nights in a Los Angeles church, Franklin made Amazing Grace, an album of sacred music that ultimately sold over two million units. At the same time, director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) filmed more than 20 hours of raw footage that he planned to fashion into a documentary film. There was a problem; Pollack couldn’t get the film to synch with the music and he was so much in demand that he didn’t have the time to work on it. Thus, Pollack’s footage lay in a Warner Brothers vault until 2011, when producer Alan Elliott fixed the technical problems.

Then, as the slogan goes, weird things turned weirder. Franklin sued Elliott for unauthorized use of her likeness. He too put the project aside until after Franklin’s death. Then a new distribution company, Neon, and a group of new producers, including Spike Lee, sent the film to the Doc NYC, where it was well received. In 2019, it went into worldwide release.

Aretha Franklin was, of course, one of the greatest singers in popular music history. Some say she was the greatest–so renowned that she’s in the Rock n’ Roll Halls of Fame in both the United States and Great Britain, as well as the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. I would listen to Franklin sing in a room full of whirring chainsaws and, if you know her music at all, even money is that her voice would drown out the saws. I get it that a lot of people would want to see any film about such a beloved figure. Objectively, though, the most notable thing about this 1972 project is that is so 1972. By that I mean it features bad hair, cheesy costumes, and enough male chauvinism to make you wonder if feminism ever happened.

It was also religious music filmed inside a church and Franklin was a devout Christian, her two divorces, three (of four) out of wedlock children, and sometimes mercurial behavior notwithstanding. This is to say don’t expect to see any of the sort of stage antics you’d normally associate with a Franklin concert. She was there to sing, not talk or put on a stage show. Franklin’s voice is muscular, clear, and awe-inspiring. I thought I was immune to all versions of “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most overdone song this side of Christmas carols, but Franklin slowed it to a snail’s pace so that there was plenty of space for bravado crescendos. Clara Ward (1924-1973) was in the audience and even she was blown away. If you don’t know that name, perhaps only Mahalia Jackson (1911-72) was more famous among female gospel singers. And Ward wasn’t the only one who was impressed. It was etched upon the youthful faces of the Southern California Community Chorus, who backed Franklin and musicians such as Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey who went on to fine careers of their own. Franklin also sang with such glory and power that members of the congregation often jumped from the pews to exalt and bear witness. (Not so Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who sat in the back benches at one of the services.)

For all of that, Franklin often looked the part of a deer in the headlights. That’s partly because the Rev. James Cleveland (1931-91) was the toastmaster of the evenings. Aretha was the Queen of Soul, but the Rev. Cleveland was the King of Gospel and the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was his house. Cleveland exuded his command, sometimes in obsequious ways, but mostly by acting large and in charge. (He was both and, in those days; Franklin was slim by comparison.) Also in the house was the Rev. C. L. Franklin (1915-84), Aretha’s father. He was, to be charitable, a problematic figure. In addition to the four children he fathered with his second wife, he also sired one with a 12-year-old member of his congregation. (In 1979, he was shot during a robbery attempt in 1979 and died after a five-year coma.) He too had a fine voice, but he was very much a male of his generation, meaning that his very pores oozed patriarchy.

As concert films go, Amazing Grace is no The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Part of me wonders if Pollack declined to correct the film’s technical problems because he couldn’t figure out how to make it sizzle on the screen and it wasn’t as interesting as The Electric Horseman, upon which he was also working. If you watch Amazing Grace, do so to hear Aretha’s voice and to acquire an accidental sociology lesson. As filmmaking goes, though, let’s call it one heck of a soundtrack in search of better visuals.

Rob Weir        


No comments: