Aretha Franklin Foils Festival's Plans to Screen 'Amazing Grace' Documentary - Film's Future Uncertain
Photo Credit: S & A

Aretha Franklin Foils Festival's Plans to Screen 'Amazing Grace' Documentary - Film's Future Uncertain

Amazing Grace“The film is the functional equivalent of replaying an entire Aretha Franklin concert without her consent,” said the complaint filed by Aretha Franklin’s attorneys, citing the right to the use of her name and likeness, invasion of privacy and more, as reasons for blocking the screening of the film.

Yes, in a widely-publicized event, Aretha Franklin prevailed yesterday, Friday in an 11th-hour legal bid to stop the Telluride Film Festival from premiering the late Sydney Pollack’s documentary, “Amazing Grace,” which shows the making of Ms. Franklin’s album of the same name more than 40 years ago.

In a strongly worded statement, Judge John L. Kane of the United States District Court for Colorado said Franklin’s case had “a high likelihood of success" based on the merits, adding that “A film that essentially recreates the entire concert experience is not fair use of this footage."

The ruling specifically stops any screenings of the film at the Telluride Film Festival, where it was to make its long-awaited world premiere. It does not mention other film festivals – like the upcoming Toronto Film Festival (TIFF), where the film is to next screen next week Thursday. Although I assume Franklin’s attorneys are hard at work to prevent the film from screening there as well, as the Telluride injunction clouds the future of what had been one of the most anticipated documentaries this year.

Thom Powers, documentary programmer at TIFF said in a statement: “We’re proceeding with plans to screen ‘Amazing Grace’ at TIFF. We haven’t heard of any legal procedures regarding the film in Toronto.”

Aretha Franklin’s 1972 album "Amazing Grace" was a best-selling album. Some even say it’s the greatest gospel album ever recorded.

But what few of us know is that the recording sessions on those two nights in January 1972, at L.A.’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, were captured on film by a 4-man camera crew, headed by the late director Sydney Pollack, shooting more than 20 hours of footage.

Now, over 40 years later, the footage has being edited and prepped into a concert film for possible theatrical distribution, billed as a film by Sidney Pollack. Interestingly, Warner Bros. once envisioned the film as part of a double bill theatrical release with "Superfly"! How groovy would that have been?

The studio would later drop the project in September of 1972, not really sure of what to do with a gospel concert movie at the time.

Producer Alan Elliott, who had several conversations with Pollack in the year before his May 2008 death, oversaw the project, working off Pollack’s notes.

We first alerted you to the project early in 2010, when it was thought that the film may actually be released that year; but it wasn’t. A couple of years later, we learned that the producers wanted to release it, however, Aretha and her attorney Alan Reed sued, seeking an injunction preventing the film’s release. But the case was apparently resolved when she believed that Elliott had no intention of releasing it, without Franklin’s permission to use her likeness in the film before it could be screened publicly – permission Aretha wasn’t (and apparently still isn’t ready to give – maybe without certain contractual concessions first being made).

Aretha was reportedly open to negotiating a deal with the film’s producers, so, as I said 4 years ago, there was still a good chance that we’d see the completed project… eventually, especially as January 2012 was the 40th anniversary of the recording, so, at the time, I thought that would certainly be a perfect date for a release.

That never happened!

The film was also set to make its international premiere at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, as part of its documentary program, which presents a diverse mix of international works featuring a wide array of award-winning directors. But with this ruling, it’s not clear whether TIFF will indeed proceed with the screening as planned.

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