Film review: ‘AMAZING GRACE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

In 1972, at the pinnacle if her career, Aretha Franklin chose to record an album of the gospel music she had sung as a young girl in church with her father. Rather than turn to the recording studio, Aretha decided to record it in a church with a congregation as the audience. That venue was the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and alongside her were gospel legend the Rev James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir as she cut one of the biggest selling gospel albums in history. Commissioned by Warner Bros to film the event was, at that time, up-and-coming director Sydney Pollack. Initially, technical problems prevented the documentary from being shown and it was shelved for decades. Now, this remarkable event is available for all to see in the restored 16 mm version named Amazing Grace.

It’s important to note this is a concert film not a biographical documentary about Aretha Franklin. There’s no narration and apart from singing, Aretha barely speaks. Also, this is not a performance of her soul hits, this is almost entirely a performance of traditional gospel songs. Inevitably, Aretha not performing her most famous works feels like a loss. Also, with many of the songs filled with religious exhortations, they will at times seem odd to a secular rock audience. Still, with Aretha at the peak of her powers singing with scintillating clarity and passion, it’s a stunning display.

Featuring almost as much as Aretha is master of ceremonies, the Rev Cleveland. While he takes time off Aretha, he’s a very charismatic and likeable chap. He’s also a portly gent and sweats up a storm. Other interludes slow proceedings, however, including a rambling speech from Aretha’s dad, the Rev C.L Franklin.

The fact that the show is in a church and filmed with the room totally lit means we have the pleasure of seeing an audience decked out in superbly extravagant 70’s hair and fashions. There’s also some celebrity spotting with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts briefly appearing. There’s a hilarious part during one rousing number where everyone rises to their feet and claps exuberantly, everyone except for a bemused-looking Charlie Watts.

Although the film’s release was initially delayed due to sound problems, the clarity and resonance of the mix here is fine. It is, however, filmed on quite grainy 16mm which might look a little dour to some but others may find it enhances the atmosphere of the event.

This may not have everything fans might want from an Aretha Franklin performance but her wonderful voice is more than enough.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Music documentary.

Classification: G.

Director(s): Sydney Pollack.

Release date: 28th Aug 2019.

Running time: 87 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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