Music documentary, not rated; Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown; 3.5 chiles
In January of 1972, a twenty-nine-year-old Aretha Franklin, with a string of 11 straight number-one pop and R&B singles, a slew of Grammys, and more than 20 albums under her belt, decided to return to her roots and make a gospel album. The result is platinum history: Amazing Grace, the biggest-selling gospel record of all time.
The recording was made live over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, located in a converted movie theater in LA’s Watts neighborhood. It featured Aretha’s old friend, gospel legend the Rev. James Cleveland, and his Southern California Community Choir. The session was produced by, among others, the great Atlantic A&R man Jerry Wexler. A film crew came along to document the proceedings, headed by emerging superstar director Sydney Pollack.
Forty-seven years later, that movie is reaching theaters.
What happened? An opening title reveals only that “the film, because of technical problems, was never finished.” Chief among those problems? Pollack forgot the clapperboards to sync the sound with the picture. The result was hours of footage, hours of sound, and no way to match them up.
Then, when the digital age made it possible to overcome that hurdle and complete the film years later, Aretha sued to block it, apparently because nobody could find the release contract she’d signed back then.
Sydney Pollack is long gone. Aretha left us last year. The sync was accomplished, the edit was completed, the contract was found, and the documentary is finally coming out. And, as they say in the gospel business, thank God.
It’s Aretha at the height of her powers, singing in front of a congregation of mostly young, hip black worshippers sporting early ’70s fashions and towering Afros. On the second night, more white faces appear in the audience, among them Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.
There’s very little behind-the-scenes insight. It’s just Aretha, with Cleveland acting as master of ceremonies and musical support, a brief address by Aretha’s father, the Rev. James Franklin (who tenderly mops the sweat from his daughter’s face), the choir singing and testifying, people dancing in the aisles, and sometimes getting literally carried away. There’s no story arc, no build to a boffo climax. It’s the Queen of Soul, singing her soul out with amazing grace and unearthly talent.