Aretha Franklin hardly says a word in “Amazing Grace,” but she sings with an energy and conviction that has powerful resonance nearly 50 years later. As a record of the church music from Franklin’s youth, cascading off the walls of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, “Amazing Grace” is soulful ear candy. But Franklin’s sweaty, impassioned delivery, which galvanizes her audiences with an electric charge, extends her awe-inspiring musical convictions beyond religious euphoria. It’s a rousing portrait of creativity as a unifying force.
Left unfinished for decades due to technical glitches, the lively concert documentary on Franklin’s landmark 1972 gospel recording provides the full picture of her largest commercial hit in real time. The project was abandoned shortly after the production; in recent years, it was completed and restored, but Franklin’s estate blocked multiple attempts to screen it on the festival circuit. It’s ironic that Franklin had to die for “Amazing Grace” to finally reach audiences, because it consolidates the essence of her legacy into 87 minutes of pure celebration.
Anyone seeking a more definitive look at Franklin’s better-known hits, or the context surrounding her fame, will have to look elsewhere. “Amazing Grace” strips away the back story to revel in the music responsible for Franklin’s definitive sound. As a complete work of filmmaking, it has some gaps; as a concert film, it delivers in spades.
Franklin isn’t the only late talent receiving her due with the movie’s completion. A young Sydney Pollack, just a few credits deep in his directing career, stepped behind the camera to capture Franklin’s dynamic nostalgia trip on Warner Bros.’ dime. But it’s hard to tell just how much Pollack contributed to the final product, considering the amount of work needed to piece together the archival materials: Ace editor Jeff Buchanan (“Her,” HBO’s “Barry”) has assembled the footage into vibrant overview of the two-day recording session, in which Franklin mostly stood at a podium while Reverend James Cleveland backed her up as emcee.
As he tells the crowd early on, Franklin could sing “Three Blind Mice” and take it to new heights. Instead, she careens through a catalog of church staples, backed by the Southern California Community Choir and an audience eager to stand up and join in. The Reverend reminds the audience that they’re participating in a religious service, but its ramifications are nondenominational.
As Franklin powers through spectacular renditions of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “Give Yourself to Jesus,” and the propulsive “Amazing Grace,” she stretches and compounds syllables into a holy melodic wail. The entire album unfolds like a single incantation, and the crowd becomes as much a participant as the woman leading it forward. The camera frequently cuts to a diverse audience ready to partake in the party. “When it’s coming your way, get in on that,” the Reverend encourages the audience, as if choreographing the final product.
That’s the ultimate root of the movie’s spellbinding power. In a key moment — one of the few opportunities to take a breather from Franklin’s songs — her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, takes the stage to salute his daughter while acknowledging the complex ramifications of her stardom. In a stern monologue, he acknowledges the possibility that the black Christian community felt she had strayed too far from its traditions. His retort to that argument leaves his clammy daughter gleaming with a new layers of tears. “If you wanna know the truth,” he says, “she has never left the church.”
Therein lies the conviction of “Amazing Grace,” a revelation illustrated exclusively through performance: Franklin universalized the conceits of her community through the framework of the commercial lens. Fred Rogers softened the televangelist image for generations of children learning about feelings, and Franklin turned those feelings into a national mood, by transforming the communal spirit of the African-American churchgoing experience into popular culture.
“Amazing Grace” provides just enough insight into this phenomenon to make you wish it dug a little deeper into the context of Franklin’s decision to make the album at such a pivotal moment in her career, after multiple Grammys and fame that guaranteed her stature as a legend-to-be. Franklin’s a remarkable stage presence, but remains an enigma as an individual. Despite a few mic problems and false starts, her creative process never takes the foreground, but the results loom large. She hovers at the front of the room, and occasionally from a piano bench, as if music were the only language in her grasp.
By the finale — a showstopping rendition of “Climbing Higher Mountains” — she has taken on superhuman proportions. The audience leaps to its feet, levitating along with her, and the documentary becomes a testament to a kind of spiritual catharsis often absent in a society steeped in angry rhetoric. It may be a relic of the past, but “Amazing Grace” has arrived right on schedule.
“Amazing Grace” premiered at the 2018 DOC NYC festival. It receives an awards-qualifying run in Los Angeles on November 23 – 29, and New York starting December 7.