Review: ‘Amazing Grace’

Amazing Grace one-sheet poster

Amazing Grace | Sydney Pollack | April 5, 2019

Aretha Franklin, the Queen Of Soul, was as hot as can be in the early 1970s, with more chart-topping singles in the span a couple of years than most artists could dream of achieving in their entire career. She wanted to record a live album and, considering her success, she could have gone into the biggest and best studio where they would roll out the finest of red carpets for her and her bandmates.

Amazing Grace still - Aretha Franklin at the mic

But Franklin opted to return to her gospel roots and decided to record the eponymous album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles along with the Southern California Community Choir and Rev. James Cleveland. Sydney Pollack was then hired to document the two-night performance for Warner Bros.

But one issue prevented the Amazing Grace concert documentary from ever leaving the vault (along with Franklin eventually legally blocking its release): Pollack mistakenly forgot to use sound-syncing clapper boards, which made the process of bridging the audio with the footage a nearly an impossible task. Yet here we are many years later and after the magical work of Alan Elliott, the film is finally ready to make its long overdue public bow.

Amazing Grace still - Aretha Franklin at the piano

What emerges is not so much a documentary in the sense of a behind the scenes and before & after of the show but the raw concert performance itself in all its glory. You feel like you’re there, sweating alongside everyone in the church, hoping to get a glimpse at what is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hell, even Mick Jagger himself is there and get a bit of love from Pollack’s film crew.

Along with the footage of Franklin, Cleveland and the Choir delivering heavenly performances, you get to see the reactions of the crowd and feel their passion. While this may be a blemish in the eyes of those used to seeing only the most polished of live concert films, what stood out to me was that the film crew and even Pollack himself can be seen hard at work during the actual performance. One stand-out moment, in particular, is when the crowd – completely immersed in the moment – rises to their feet, and you can see Pollack rush into the frame pointing to the crowd making sure that the shot he wants is captured properly.

Amazing Grace still - Aretha Franklin and the choir

While many shots are frustratingly out of focus, it adds to the raw documentation and charm of the feature that makes it all that much more real and lived in. There are many little moments in Amazing Grace that stand out just as much as Franklin’s stunning performance, such as her Detroit Baptist minister father Rev. C.L. Franklin and her mentor Ms. Clara Ward in the front row for night two. Seeing her father get on stage and wipe away the hard-earned sweet from her face as she plays was a standout moment, the sort of the thing that you can’t script; it has to be birthed at the moment. That’s the beauty of live music and it’s captured perfectly by Pollack.

Amazing Grace still - Aretha Franklin performing with the crowd

You don’t have to be a fan of Franklin’s music (but come on, why wouldn’t you be?) or religious to find a great appreciation of what Pollack has captured her. Amazing Grace is a time capsule of one of our great American artists giving a performance that should never be forgotten and now never will.

Rating: 8.4/10