- 10 May 19
How sweet the sound.
Released 46 years after being shot, for reasons explored in our interview with Joe Boyd, Amazing Grace is the purest form of music film. This isn’t a documentary with a narrative arc or structure. And it’s not a concert film, with slick visuals capturing an elaborate stage production. Filming the recording of Aretha Franklin’s – and gospel music’s – biggest-selling album in Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Amazing Grace is a raw, sensory, reverent experience; an awe-inducing portrayal of a singer at the height of her powers.
Originally directed by Sydney Pollack but later rescued, realised and produced by Alan Elliott, Amazing Grace is not a visually sumptuous film. The church is over-lit, the footage is grainy, and Pollack and his crew members are frequently visible. But there’s an authenticity to this roughness, allowing viewers to fully immerse themselves in the reverent reaction of the crowd, the spirit of shared emotion and experience, and of course, the voice of Aretha Franklin.
Franklin, 29 when the film was shot, barely speaks during the film – she doesn’t need to, as she puts indescribable energy and electricity into her performance. As sweat drips down her brow, smudging her pastel eyeshadow, there’s no self-consciousness or ego here, just a pure, full-hearted offering – to her god, the music and the audienceHer performances of songs like ‘You’ve Got A Friend’, ‘Wholy Holy’ and hymns such as ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ are majestic, but it’s her 11-minute rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ that is truly transcendent. It imbues a song written by a slave trader – which then became an anthem for the civil rights movement – with unimaginable beauty, pain, soul and complexity.
Amazing Grace’s setting is a church; many of the songs are hymns; and Franklin’s collaborator and host is Reverend James Cleveland. But you don’t have to believe in God to feel that Amazing Grace a religious experience. You just have to believe in art, talent, emotion and human connection. If you do, Amazing Grace offers you the chance to worship.