Amazing Grace review – euphoric vision of Aretha Franklin's gospel glory

There’s an oceanic swell of euphoria and joy in this extraordinary film, effectively a rediscovered concert movie showing the creation of Aretha Franklin’s gospel LP, Amazing Grace, recorded over two nights in 1972 in front of a live congregation and accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir. The concert was at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, the interior being dominated by a vivid fresco of Christ’s baptism, a painting that by now might have almost pop-art status.

Sydney Pollack shot the original footage but the project had to be abandoned because sound and vision had not been properly synchronised. Only decades later has digital technology permitted this match-up to be achieved under the supervision of Alan Elliott.

Franklin is stunningly charismatic in her very reticence and restraint. Unlike the church’s ebullient and charming pastor, James Cleveland, who MCs the event, Franklin never addresses the audience other than in her singing, sometimes from the pulpit, sometimes from the piano keyboard; she is dressed simply, almost sacrificially, in a plain dress. Her one purely dramatic gesture comes at the very end when she turns and sings directly to the choir – an electrifying, enigmatic gesture.

The most heartwrenching moment arrives when Cleveland invites Franklin’s father, the Rev CL Franklin, to address the congregation, which he does, talking fondly of Aretha’s childhood. At another stage, he rushes forward while she is singing and mops her brow, just as he might have done when she was a girl.

Yet, however moved we all are, Franklin herself remains calm between numbers, as if in the studio rather than on the concert stage, yet perhaps sensing, as a true artist, that it is her audience and not she who must cry.

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I felt wrung out at the end of this film. How incredible must it have been for those who were there in person.


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