'Amazing Grace' ★★★★
In early 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded “Amazing Grace,” a collection of gospel classics performed over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The session – which included gospel pioneer James Cleveland, his Southern California Community Choir and esteemed musicians Bernard Purdie, Cornell Dupree and Chuck Rainey – was captured live, in front of an adoring congregation that, by the second evening, would include Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Franklin's father, the Baptist minister C.L. Franklin.
“Amazing Grace” would become the best-selling gospel album of all time. And Warner Bros., the corporate umbrella of Atlantic Records, Franklin's label, saw added potential: The company hired Sydney Pollack to direct a documentary about what anyone could tell would be the musical equivalent of lightning in a bottle.
Pollack commandeered a team of cameramen and sound recordists. But he neglected to provide “clappers,” the wooden tools editors use to marry sound to image. For nearly 50 years, the “Amazing Grace” documentary resided only in film cans and the frustrated imaginations of people who could only dream what the footage would look and sound like today.
Thankfully, a former Atlantic producer named Alan Elliott never lost faith. Thanks to his tenacity, and the gifts of digital technology, “Amazing Grace” can now be seen in all its aesthetic, spiritual and historical glory. And even more gratifyingly, it is as simple and unaffected as Aretha Franklin herself is in the film: Unsullied by talking-head interviews, sentimental reminiscences and other interstitial distractions, “Amazing Grace” simply chronicles two incredible concerts, as Franklin, Cleveland, the choir and the congregants seek fellowship and find transport and transcendence.
Draped in regal gowns, Franklin stands at the pulpit or sits at the piano, often closing her eyes to sing such standards as “Mary, Don't You Weep,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the album's title track, and a stirring medley of “You've Got a Friend” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Cutting gracefully among the singer, her accompanists and her audience, editor Jeff Buchanan re-creates the two performances with a steady focus on Franklin's own formidable musicianship and concentration. She barely utters a word throughout “Amazing Grace,” but she speaks volumes, deferring to her own God-given gifts while her father and Cleveland do most of the talking.
Secular music fans won't want to miss “Amazing Grace,” if only for one more chance to appreciate the singular genius of Franklin, who died last year. But Elliott and his team have retained the enterprise's initial spiritual purpose, not just sharing an invaluable record of a storied musical performance, but also bearing witness to sacred vocation, commitment to faith and continuity of ancestral memory.
How appropriate that “Amazing Grace” is arriving in theaters just in time for Easter. It's an act of cinematic resurrection if ever there was one. You might even call it a miracle.