Amazing Grace - Review

The long-lost concert film of Aretha Franklin’s greatest achievement is a welcome addition to her legend.

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Time may have taken one of the greatest voices to ever utter a syllable, but it has also...wait, I’m looking at my notes...urm...it has also jumbled and tossed the film that captured that person? And that person was sort of involved in the jumbling and tossling? Oh boy, this one is a doozy.

The person in question, of course, is Aretha Franklin, who passed away in 2018 to illness she had been battling for years. The Lady Soul, at the time of filming Amazing Grace, was in the middle of her zenith: 1972, fresh off the release of Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black, Franklin and producers Jerry Wexler and Ray Thompson released Amazing Grace, a live gospel album recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California. In attendance were such legendary musicians as Cornell Dupree, Kenneth Luper, Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey, as well as Rev. James Cleveland, one of the most recognizable faces in contemporary gospel. Two of the Rolling Stones were there (one of them was Mick).

Along with a full choir and pews lined with people, Franklin and her band cut through the limits of a live album and recorded one of her greats. The film, commissioned by Warner Bros and directed by Sydney Pollack, was shot alongside the two-night recording session, and lost to technical problems. That problem, specifically, was the lack of a clapper during filming, which allows for audio and picture to be synchronized in the editing process. Sort of crucial for a concert film.

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The footage, now visible in all its synchronized glory, is staggering. Franklin is seen as she has been described: effervescent, grounded, human; but more than that, Amazing Grace is the opportunity to see her small movements, the minor moments that come before the ridiculous highs of “Amazing Grace” and “Give Yourself to Jesus.” It’s a holistic look at a woman and singer whose life was equally praised, dragged, and redeemed: just see her transcendent Kennedy Center performance in 2015.

But in ways both big and small, Amazing Grace demonstrates just how full a woman Franklin was, more than than the beaming praiser the album presents. That Aretha exists, too, and comes out in full form, but through select portions of rehearsal footage and frequent shots of Franklin looking more than a little overwhelmed, there’s no denying this chinks her picture-perfect image. The issue is, that’s exactly what a biographical film should do: reveal something.

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It contrasts an ideal vision, certainly, but presents a look so revealing, so simple, it may just be the perfect concert film. The talent of Aretha Franklin needs no explanation, and her legend is far from dwindling: but Amazing Grace adds to it with subtle, colorful looks into her collaborators, mentors, and above all, herself.