Forty-seven years ago — at the height of her career, Aretha Franklin traveled to Los Angeles where she created the soul-searing gospel album, Amazing Grace. It would become the best-selling gospel album of all time and the best-selling album of the soul singer’s career. For two nights in January 1972, in the unassuming New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles —Franklin would take her audience to church —literally. Accompanied by her four-piece band, Reverend James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin returned to her gospel roots, effortlessly belting out sublime renditions of hymns like “Never Grow Old” and “Precious Memories.”
Amazing Grace was always supposed to be more than an album. Franklin assumed it would be a part of cinematic history. Warner Bros. had hired filmmaker Sydney Pollack to capture the album’s recording on film, but the movie was left incomplete and did not see the light of day until now. Franklin had the film shelved after being dissatisfied with the finished product, and it is only after her death—with her family’s blessing—that Amazing Grace is getting the audience that it deserves.
Much more than a music documentary, Amazing Grace is a historical moment and an heirloom to Black history. Amazing Grace acts as an entry point into the historic Black church—a throughline for many members of the Black community—inviting its audience into the core of the institution to seek God, a higher power, or some sense of solace and understanding through Aretha Franklin’s voice.
Pollack never tries to spoon-feed the audience a story about Franklin’s electric career or return to gospel. Instead, Amazing Grace acts as an authentic time capsule of a specific event, allowing the audience to receive whatever it is they need from it and the music itself. Shot one year before his breakout feature, The Way We Were —Pollack seems out of his element. The entire film is a frenzy of shots from handhelds to stationary cameras trying to capture everything from the sweat on Franklin’s brown cheeks to the shiny, silver vests of the choir.
At first glance, the chaotic camera work seems amateurish — in direct contrast to the polished American New Wave Blockbusters like The Godfather, and Chinatown, that were coming out of Hollywood during the 1970s. Perhaps this is why Franklin was dissatisfied with the final product. However, Amazing Grace stirs the spirit because of its rawness. At the start of both evenings, Franklin gracefully glides down the church aisles as people reach for her hands from the pews. As the band and choir begin, and the “Think” songstress lands each crisp note, something bound up breaks free. Folks shout jubilantly from both the audience and the choir, and on the second night, a least two women catch the holy spirit (visibly frightening one of the white cameramen).
Though she was already a massive star then, at 29-years-old Franklin seems bashful and introverted. Her Lady Soul persona is stripped away and hung up before she even entered the doors of New Temple. The only remnants of her diva personality are the glittering white frock draped on her body for night one, and the green gown she chose for night two—both worn with matching eyeshadows. Secular music might have helped propel Franklin to superstardom, but from her opening number, a rapturous rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” it’s clear that she’s at home in gospel. Franklin barely addresses the crowd, and her speaking voice is rarely heard aside from some quick shots from rehearsal. Instead, she whispers to Rev. Cleveland or choir director Alexander Hamilton about song transitions.
Just like the riveting music, Amazing Grace wouldn’t be an “authentic” Black church experience without a bit of preaching. Rev. Cleveland acts as a master of ceremonies during short song breaks, and Franklin’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin appears during night two, stepping up to the pulpit to share antidotes from the Young, Gifted And Black singer’s childhood. At one point, Rev. Franklin even lovingly pulls out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat off of his daughter’s face.
With so many angles and so much footage, music executive Alan Elliott was always going to face challenges when bringing Amazing Grace to a 21st-century audience. However, with a bright, clear picture (by ‘70s standards), a gorgeous sound mix, some brilliant uses of split-screens, guidance from the late Pollack, and of course Franklin’s otherworldly vocals, it all came together beautifully. Elliot understood that he had to lean into the essence of the experience instead of trying to create a story.
Amazing Grace might not be the movie that Aretha Franklin expected, but it’s the film that music lovers, believers, and everyone else desperately needs to see. From the moment her fingers begin moving across the piano keys, and certainly, in the instances where Franklin’s vocals are isolated—the choir, band, and audience suddenly silenced in the background —Amazing Grace is a glorious experience highlighting at its core what’s so pure and welcoming about the Black church.
Amazing Grace debuts in theaters, April 5, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide