As the Southern California Community Choir made its way up the aisle of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church I got chills. From that moment, mere minutes into documentary, Amazing Grace, I knew that I was watching something special.
After the choir members had taken their seats, The Reverend Dr. James Edward Cleveland introduced Aretha Franklin. The legendary singer walked up the aisle - looking stunning in a white embellished dress - and took her place at the front of the congregation.
And then she began to sing.
That Franklin had a powerful voice and incredible range is news to no one, of course. In 1972, the year that (over the course of two nights) she recorded Amazing Grace, Franklin was already firmly established as a music icon - the Queen of Soul.
However, the combination of time and place, of the gospel songs selected and the sheer brilliance of the musicians and the choir (superbly conducted by a scene stealing Alexander Hamilton) gave these two performances something extra - something transcendent.
Franklin’s powerful, respectful and emotional performance in Amazing Grace - singing songs such as Wholy, Holy, You’ve Got A Friend, Precious Memories and, of course, Amazing Grace - moved me to tears.
I felt so happy that I was able to watch this important moment in musical history 47 years after it was filmed.
The story behind Amazing Grace is almost (almost) as interesting as the event the documentary depicts.
When Franklin began planning her album, Warner Bros agreed to film the session - hoping that the combination of film and album would reap big financial rewards. After all, Warner had paid $100,000 for the rights of Michael Wadleigh’s film and album of Woodstock and the movie had grossed $17 million and the album sold three million copies.
As a result, Warner Bros’ chief executive, Ted Ashley, mentioned the documentary project at a meeting with Sydney Pollack. When he heard Franklin's name, the director immediately signed up to helm the film.
Amazing Grace was filmed and recorded in front of a lively and appreciative congregation (including some very famous faces). It became the highest selling album of Franklin’s career and the most popular gospel album of all time.
However, the film was never publicly released.
Heartbreakingly, there were no clappers and no marks to guide the sound into synch with the picture. Pollack even hired lip readers and specialist editors but nothing could be done to save the film. Or so it seemed.
40 years later, Atlantic Records staff producer, Alan Elliott, decided to try to rescue Amazing Grace. He approached Pollack and also Franklin’s music producer, Jerry Wexler, with an idea to use new digital technology (from Deluxe Entertainment Services) to match the sound to the picture.
Elliott had been working on the film since 1990 and had had many conversations with Pollack about resurrecting Amazing Grace. As Pollack became increasingly ill (he would sadly die from cancer in 2008), the director asked Elliott to finish the film.
The project involved hours of painstaking work. Elliott’s first cut was three and a half hours long. Few would have minded this length, but Elliott decided to edit the footage down to 91 minutes.
The result is a film that is simple and raw. There are no embellishments, no talking heads. You don’t need to be told about the significance of this event… you can feel it. You can feel the heat inside the church and you can feel the excitement. The atmosphere builds to electric levels.
Franklin’s voice is breathtaking and Amazing Grace is an incredible uplifting and inspirational experience. It was, of course, never intended to be an elegiac documentary. However, the fact that the film was only released after the singer’s death gives it an even greater emotional power.
It may have taken 47 years to make it to our screens but Amazing Grace is well worth the wait.