Based on the 1972 Grammy award-winning album of the same name, Amazing Grace is a moving, long-awaited celebration of the late Aretha Franklin. There are no grand gestures of narrative here, but just a simple, delightful montage of Franklin’s music and the community that gathers to sing and rejoice with her.
Using never-before-seen raw footage from the 1972 two-day live recording of Franklin’s gospel album (of the same name) at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, the film beautifully etches on celluloid the community, spirit and effervescence around Franklin’s music. Shot originally by Sydney Pollack for Warner Brothers to accompany the release of her album, the film ran into problems with syncing picture and sound and was never shown.
In the wake of Franklin’s passing last year, her family decided to release the film, and Amazing Grace, in its 90-minute running time, resurrects Franklin’s heartfelt, soulful gospel music. Riding on her success and Grammy wins, Franklin returns to the “songs of her childhood”, belting out gospel tunes for the 1972 album, which still stands as the best-selling live gospel music album of all time.
Amazing Grace defies genre categorisations – it is not quite a biographical drama, nor a musical documentary. The film revels in its modest approach – there are no talking heads nor lengthy background exposition, neither great plot nor spectacular conflict, and the film virtually stays in just one location (the church). Amazing Grace, in a way, is a sweet homage not just to music, but also to the patient art of filmmaking. It paints a sincere portrait of a talented artist at work. Beads of sweat slowly accumulate, amplified through the multiple close-up shots of Franklin’s face, a testament to the passage of time and the singer pouring heart and soul into her craft. During the titular song of the film, Franklin moves behind the pulpit to sing; her music, a religious experience unto itself.
In between the long takes of Franklin singing, the film cuts to the audience that has come to attend the recording of Franklin’s album. People, from the young to the old, rise from their seats to dance, revel, clap and cheer. There is also a choir that accompanies Franklin, and her father (who worked as a church minister) and the great gospel musician, Reverend James Cleveland are also present. This film is not just about Franklin, but also the communities that have inspired, guided and celebrated her music.