Imagine travelling back to 1972, to a Baptist Church in Los Angeles, just in time for Aretha Franklin to deliver a performance that would go down in history. That’s what watching Amazing Grace feels like. The astonishing documentary – a lost film finally unearthed and restored – captures the moment the Queen of Soul revisited her roots. The songs she recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church became the best-selling gospel album of all time, but few knew that Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack was there, filming. For technical reasons, the footage was shelved and almost forgotten until after Pollack’s death – and its painstaking resurrection results in spine-tingling stuff.
Running the show is Reverend James Cleveland, a charismatic fellow who would surely be played by Cedric the Entertainer in a feature version of this film. In front of an excited audience and invigorated backing singers, he welcomes the “young lady” to the mic. The words “young lady” might leap out if your typical image of Franklin is of her in her later years, larger than life and owning the stage. The 29-year-old woman who glides quietly up to the pulpit here seems shy, a little self-conscious, even nervous (despite already having had many hit albums). And then… she sings. You know the voice, of course, but there is no preparing you for how incredible it sounds when she first opens her mouth: there’s no softly building up to a crescendo, just 100%, apparently effortless, Franklin magic from the off.
Not that she’s taking it easy; it’s intriguing watching the care the singer takes over the music and the accompaniment, sometimes asking to go again, perhaps a little politely concealed frustration flickering at the corner of her mouth. It’s moments like this that give you something many music documentaries do not, a bird’s-eye view into a performance that has room for spontaneity and the unexpected – a far cry from today’s heavily produced performances. Filmed over two nights, it features plenty of hand-held camera work and sudden zooms that put you right at the centre of the action. Women in the congregation start dancing uncontrollably, praising the Lord and nearly kicking a camera over mid-jive. Oh, and who’s that guy nodding his head at the back? Only Mick Jagger. Then Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, makes a speech, and gospel legend Clara Ward is welcomed. This mix of bohemian rockers, hippies and African- American worshippers in post-Civil Rights America is a blend that makes this especially uplifting. Whatever your beliefs, watching two communities come together in praise of her gift is quite something.
Musical highlights include rousing renditions of songs from Marvin Gaye and Carole King, alongside hymns including Amazing Grace itself, which causes the Reverend Cleveland to weep freely. No wonder The Guardian called this “one of the finest music documentaries ever”. A revealing look at a key time in history and a thrilling musical ride full of passion, it really is an experience you will not forget. And it turns Franklin’s most personal performance into a piece of cinematic history, too.