In 1972, a year after their massive hit “Woodstock,” Warner Bros. set out to produce an Aretha Franklin performance documentary. It took 43 years, but producer Alan Elliott completed the film shot by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa”) over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Now, after decades of setbacks both technical and emotional, after Franklin’s long illness and death from pancreatic cancer on August 16, Elliott clinched a deal with her estate to release the movie — and submitted the paperwork in time for Academy’s October 1 submission deadline.
Elliott has booked the film for week-long Oscar-qualifying runs in Los Angeles (November 20, Laemmle Monica) and New York (Film Forum, December 7). And by dropping the mic on November 5 with the announcement that the movie would show November 12 (introduced by Reverend Al Sharpton) at DOC NYC, he’s set in motion the next phase of his campaign. The movie still needs to land a sales agent, a distributor, and an Oscar marketing team willing to jump into the game at this late date.
Pollack captured a legendary concert: It’s when Franklin recorded her Grammy-winning gospel album “Amazing Grace,” which went double platinum, sold over 2 million copies stateside, and remained her biggest seller over her 50-year career. However, difficulties with syncing the footage shot by four 16 mm cameras meant shelving the project. In 1988, Elliott obtained rights to the movie and Pollack wrote Franklin to tell her he wanted to finish the documentary. Pollack died in 2008, and that’s when Elliot made it his passion project.
I saw a screening of the work in progress five years ago. It’s a glorious, rousing concert film displaying Aretha Franklin in all her youthful gospel glory, her voice soaring with the songs of the lord. Franklin cared deeply about this concert, and she was legendary for wanting control: Selling distribution rights was contentious.
According to the film’s producers, Franklin would accept money for marketing and promoting the movie — but she still wanted to retain the rights. Lionsgate was on board to release the film in 2015 until the courts granted Franklin’s lawyers an injunction to stop the scheduled world premiere at Telluride. The legal team also stopped a subsequent screening at Toronto, as well as a Telluride showing the following year, on the grounds that Elliott still needed Franklin’s permission to release the film.
For Franklin, “this wasn’t a transaction,” Elliott told me in a phone interview. “This is a very close piece to her. She was a tough woman; the last thing she did was a benefit for AIDS. Her legacy was about doing right in the community and sticking up for herself.”
Over the past five years, as Franklin battled illness, Elliott became friendly with Sabrina Owens, the executor of Aretha Franklin’s will. She invited him to Detroit for Franklin’s funeral. Five weeks ago, Elliott and producer Tirrell Whittley flew back into Detroit to show “Amazing Grace” to Franklin’s family, only three weeks after Franklin passed. “The family loved it,” said Elliott. “They laughed and cried and sang. It was an emotional time. We left the screening and Sabrina said, ‘Let’s go make the movie.'” They instantly closed a deal, agreeing to partner and hold onto the rights in order to retain more leverage in a distribution deal.
“Let’s drop the fur coat on the stage!” Elliott said. “How do we honor this legacy? We want to do an event for clean water for Flint. An event for the Reverend Barber and the poor people’s campaign. We’ll stay out of the corporate lane unless they’re ready to commit to being a part of a social justice campaign.”
And Owens and Elliott agreed: Let’s try to win an Academy Award! When one agent told Elliott that this year’s documentary race is far too crowded, he replied, “Do you know what we have? We are not just going for Best Documentary. Aretha would want us to go for Best Picture!”