In 1972, Aretha Franklin released a live album entitled “Amazing Grace.” It’s not only her best selling album, but also the best selling live gospel album of all time. It was recorded over the course of two days at a Baptist church in Los Angeles with a full choir and audience in attendance. At the same time, filmmaker Sydney Pollack directed a full concert film of the recording, but due to technical difficulties and lawsuits, the film never saw the light of day. However, almost half a decade later, Pollack’s documentary Amazing Grace has finally seen the light of day. And what unfolded over those two days is simply magical.
From a filmmaking perspective, Amazing Grace is rather lackluster. The editing is very choppy and the cameras simply move way too much. It almost seems like there was no proper direction on what should be recorded, and instead, it was randomly chosen what would gain the spotlight. However, this does not detract from the aura Amazing Grace manages to retain throughout its runtime. Franklin simply exudes sheer energy and passion at every turn, and it’s evident in the final product.
From the first note to her last, Franklin gives a performance that is astonishingly powerful. The music being performed quickly overcomes any inhibitions people may have had. The audience breaks into fits of dancing, cheering, clapping, and more. Yet Franklin never seems to be fazed by it. Her commitment to the music is impenetrable, and it never loses its allure. This aspect alone is enough to keep the viewer engrossed, if only to listen to the music in its raw form.
If Amazing Grace does anything, it proves just how powerful cinema can be. The titular performance is simply spine tingling. Certain members of the audience are shown in full tears, and it feels difficult to not rise and cheer for the beauty that is emanating before your eyes. It’s difficult for a film to properly convey emotion into viewers, but Franklin doesn’t share that problem. And that is where this documentary shines. It is barebones in its direction and angle, as it doesn’t truly need one. The singular focus should be Franklin at all times. Only once does it divert from this, and for great reason.
Franklin’s father, a renowned reverend, was asked to come forward and speak on the second night of recording. And his speech perfectly sums up the film and its purpose. He touches on how Franklin returning to her roots sends him back to when she began singing in choir. Childhood memories filled his mind, and he was no longer in the church with the onlookers, but instead in his living room. And just as he was transported, audiences watching Amazing Grace will be sent back in time as well. Moments in time that have been lost are now being rediscovered, and through cinema, modern audiences can experience them. And quite frankly, everyone should see this film whether you know of Franklin’s music or not.
At times, Franklin takes on the form of an angel, and the music being created is utterly inspiring. The candor is apparent in every expression Franklin makes, or how the reverend and choir react to her words. Through the use of split screen techniques, we see multiple events happening concurrently. Franklin singing the titular song is matched up directly with the reverend removed from his piano, in full tears. It makes the effect all the more tangible, especially being so far removed from the event. And this is simply where the beauty in Amazing Grace lies.
Recent documentaries like They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11 have become rather successful. This proves there is general interest in historical events from a first-hand account. So what better way could one learn context of Franklin’s raw talent than observing a peak in her career? And not only be able to observe it, but to feel as if you are living during its very creation. Documentaries of this caliber deserve praise purely for the significance of their creation. At the very least, this documentary will expose one of the greatest artists of all time to audiences that may not be very familiar with her work, and for that, Amazing Grace confirms the necessity for its existence.
Are you looking forward to this documentary, and if so, is it because you are a fan of Franklin or hoping to discover new music? Let us know in the comments below!
Neon will release Amazing Grace in theaters on April 5th.