Forty-seven years after Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace was released, we are finally seeing the footage of the two evenings when this legendary album was recorded. Shot by Sydney Pollack, the film was kept in a vault all these years because the director and his team had failed to mark the synchronicity between sound and image — a rookie mistake with astoundingly huge consequences.
The highest selling live gospel music album of all time, Amazing Grace represented for Franklin a return to her gospel roots. To see her unbreakable concentration as she raises her unbelievable voice makes watching the film a transcendental, if not a religious experience, for fans of gospel and for the uninitiated alike.
We interviewed Joe Boyd, producer on the film, about the lengthy process bringing this incredible footage to the screen.
Elena Lazic (EL): Reading about the film, it seems like it was a very complex and lengthy process putting this film together. Do you have a personal connection to it?
Joe Boyd (JB): In 1972, I was working at Warner Brothers Films, which was at that time part of the same corporation as Atlantic Records. They were both owned by Warner Communications. I was the head of the music department of the film company, and one job included trying to encourage collaborations with the record companies. Atlantic Records told us they were coming to Los Angeles to record Aretha in a church, making a gospel album, and the idea emerged that maybe it would be an interesting event to film. I would have been more involved but at a certain point, the studio mentioned the project to the great director Sydney Pollack, who was making feature films for Warner Brothers as well as other studios. He had a very good relationship there, I think he had an office on the lot, and he said he’d like to do it. So he really took over doing it and he did a great job filming it, but the problem was that he’d never filmed live music before, and somehow there wasn’t the connection made to how the film would be synchronised to the sound. And so the film could not be edited at that time, in 1972, and it was put into a vault.
I left the company, I made a film, I sort of left in order to make a documentary for Warner Brothers about Jimi Hendrix. And then, I went back into the record business, making films occasionally, and I always wondered, “what’s going to happen to this footage?” But I never imagined myself being involved. In 2009/2010, when I got to Los Angeles, I was contacted by Alan Elliott, who was a record producer based in Los Angeles, and he told me that he had licensed the film from Warner Brothers, and had managed to get it synchronised with the sound. And since that time, I’ve just been involved to a greater and lesser extent at different times, trying to help find the money, trying to help clear the rights, trying to help get the film to go to the screen.
EL: That’s such a long time to be involved in a single project!
JB: Yeah, I mean it wasn’t full time. And it was really thanks to this laboratory called Deluxe, Alan had a kind of chance meeting with somebody from Deluxe Labs, and it turned out they were specialists in restoring film. Somehow, they were able to get the film synchronised with the sound, and then Alan put together the film that you see.
Personally, I get really tired of most music documentaries. All the talking heads, the explanations, trying to lead the audience by the hand through the story, etc. I think Alan’s idea just to put you there over the two nights, and just be there — don’t explain it, don’t analyse it, don’t look back on it, just be there — I think that was a great choice, and that was in a way what made me enthusiastic about getting involved and doing what I could to help bring it to the screen.
EL: Why is it that the film then took so long to play at festivals and come out?
JB: Warner Brothers gave Alan the rights, but they insisted that he had to clear with Aretha Franklin. And Aretha, you know, she was a huge star, she had a very strong sense of her own value, so she wanted a lot of money. She was also never really happy about contracts, and lawyers, that kind of thing. So, in order to raise money, you really had to show the film in a festival, and you needed a clear right to do that, and that was really difficult. We came close a few times — there was a big studio that was willing to pay her all the money she wanted, but then there were other issues that came up. And it was only, sadly, when the family saw the film after Aretha’s death that they loved it and saw the point of letting us have a window to show it in the New York Documentary Film Festival, and to show it for a week at a theatre in New York, and at a theatre in Los Angeles. And then, from that, we got a distribution deal.
EL: What do you think that people get from seeing the footage of the recording, on top of hearing it? What do you think it adds to the experience?
JB: It’s so amazing to see this music unfolding before your eyes and to see the artistry of Aretha. As great as the record is, I think the experience of watching Aretha and watching Alexander Hamilton conduct the choir, and hearing the atmosphere, and seeing the faces of the people — it’s a time capsule. You could say — and this is an exaggeration, of course — in a way, it’s the end of an era. People don’t make music like that anymore. And not even Aretha made music like that two years later. She started making much more pop records, produced by Teddy Pendergrass, she worked with the Arista label, and started making Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, things like that. Which may be great records, but they’re very different. It’s amazing to do a double album in two nights, completely live. People don’t do that, with this level of complexity, with this level of virtuosity. With the roots. It was so vivid, and it didn’t modernise so much as expand this tradition of the gospel, which she had grown up with. There’s a couple of contemporary songs — there’s the Marvin Gaye and the Carole King songs — but most of it is pure gospel, from the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
EL: How are people reacting to the film? I imagine that many of them might not be familiar with the more gospel side of Aretha Franklin’s music.
JB: We have an unbelievable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, everybody seems to love it. One interesting reaction I had was at the Berlin Film Festival. A couple of German film critics came to me after the screening and said: “Aretha looks so sad, so serious, she didn’t smile! What was the matter with her? Was something upsetting her? What was the problem?” And I said, “Aretha was working!” This was a very important album for her. The culmination of her first career, to go back to her sources. Because all of her hits had been so full of gospel influence — like her father says in the film, Aretha never left the church. She was still using the tradition of the church and making hit records. And this was a really important record for her.
You can see how she concentrates so much. The performance she gives, she couldn’t just be telling jokes one minute and waving to people or asking if everybody was having a good time, and then turn around 30 seconds later and sing like she did. So I think it’s a testament to her artistry and her stature as an artist. She was in the material, she was with the musicians, working on the arrangements. And you see, even in that moment where she stops the song after a few bars, she makes everyone start again.
That’s one thing you don’t see in the film. I was there, and the one thing that’s different about my memory of those evenings, is that the film does not show you how often they did retakes. After the end of every song, there’d be a moment where Jerry Wexler would be in the truck behind the church, and he would talk by walkie-talkie with Arif Marden who was in the room or with Aretha, or with Reverand James Cleveland, or with Hamilton. They would consult and they would say, “O.K., we have to do that again.” And they would perform the same song all over again. You don’t see that in the film, but that was what it was like on the night. It was a very serious, working evening. Everybody was very serious about trying to get a great record.
EL: Were you actually at the shows?
JB: Yes, I was there! You can see me in the film at the beginning talking to Sydney Pollack, there’s a guy with a bad moustache and a funny-looking green velvet coat. That’s me.
EL: Once you had all this footage, I know you weren’t really involved in the creative process, but how did you work out what would be included and what wouldn’t be? Are there things that weren’t included that were once considered for inclusion?
JB: I think Alan did definitely looked at all the footage, but he didn’t actually edit all the songs. So I don’t think there are any outtakes or bonus tracks. There might be, but it’s been done on such a shoestring budget, I don’t know rather that will happen. But you can hear from the record that there are some wonderful tracks. But also, the question of the coverage. I think Alan’s judgment was based on the musical strength of the takes, but also the camera coverage — what footage they had of Aretha, how good the shots are. There are some beautiful shots of Aretha singing. And I think that was one of the factors, but I think the most important factor was the music.
Amazing Grace is out now.Find your local cinema and book now