By resurrecting the film Amazing Grace, producer Alan Elliott has cemented Aretha Franklin’s legacy as the Queen of Soul. The film documents the unique recording of “Amazing Grace”, the record (the album, a live recording of Franklin’s performance with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, pays homage to her gospel roots). It remains the most successful gospel album of all time, so Franklin and her team deserved to make such an impact. She gave an epic performance in an intimate space, and lucky for us, the cameras were there to document it.
The detail captured by Sydney Pollack and his team in 1972 illustrates the scope of Franklin’s abilities. When she steps up to the microphone, she transforms. The sound she channels lights up her face and ignites the congregation. More than once, she moves members of the crowd to tears. At one point, the Reverend Cleveland excuses himself to sob into his hands. For him, and for the crowd gathered with him, this is not just a performance; it’s a religious experience.
The congregation contributes as much to the film as Franklin, Elliott and the rest of the creative team. They give themselves over to the moment completely, allowing the music to sweep them into a frenzy. Their joy rises with the music, and as viewers, we experience it with them. Even though Monday night’s preview audience at the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick remained in their seats, no-one stayed still. Toes were tapping and heads were bopping along to powerful renditions of” You’ve Got A Friend” and “Climbing Higher Mountains”.
Don’t expect to dance the whole film away though. Franklin and the choir are about to lead you across a diverse emotional terrain. When they perform the film’s titular song, you may find yourself reaching for the tissues. Only the most aggressively atheist will have no reason to hold back tears.
The film crew adds to the drama and the spectacle. Throughout the film crew members are visible, and Franklin and Cleveland both drip with sweat from the heat of the studio lights. Simultaneously, the soft-focus images and at times grainy footage reinforce the communal atmosphere the music creates.
My only word of caution for potential viewers is that this film is a window into a religious service. You don’t need to be a believer to enjoy it, or even be swept away by it. My own experience demonstrates this. But if you find outward displays of faith off-putting, this may not be the film for you. However I would encourage you to put those instincts aside and let the music take you away.