Amazing Grace, a documentary on the performance of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album, is not just a concert video. It illustrates a performer’s brilliance solely by virtue of its content. No fancy editing is needed to shock the audience with the power of Franklin’s voice.
The newly released film was originally directed by Sydney Pollack in 1972 and finally made ready for the screen in 2018 by a team including Spike Lee. It is a pieced-together version of a performance by Franklin over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The recording of the same performance would go on to become the highest-selling gospel album of all time.
Amazing Grace’s defining quality is its differentiation from other concert movies. Although there is no denying that the audience in the church is aware that they are watching a star perform, they have clearly come for more than the spectacle of celebrity. Many have in fact come for a spiritual experience; as is to be expected, since the venue is the regular playground for the great Southern California Community Choir, and the casually commanding Reverend James Cleveland is directing the show. The atmosphere is tangibly religious, but still open. This allows both an unbridled performance and many chest-heaving, hand-shaking eruptions from attendees catching the Holy Spirit. The Gospel choir sits to give her the stage, but cannot withhold their exuberance and often leap to their feet and yell “Go Aretha!” when she reaches her vocal peaks and the deep valleys of her soulful hums.
Somehow, the film manages to be both a communal, engaging experience and a showcase of Franklin’s greatness. Walking up to the stage on the first night in her sequined white gown, she looks slightly nervous in front of this intimate crowd. But perhaps this is only because she is saving every ounce of energy for her voice. Once she reaches the piano and breaks out into Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” there is no looking back. Her eyes shut in concentration and her mouth opens wide during her vocal stretches. By the time the lights from her sequins have blurred with the shining beads of sweat dripping down her face she is miles away from the nerves of the beginning.
The Reverend says that Franklin’s rehearsal performance of “Amazing Grace,” with its hopeful lyrics, rang true with him. He remarks that just 20 years ago, he never could have imagined God giving them what they have today. It is a subtle but powerful reference to the struggle for civil rights and the adversities that were encountered. It truly lifts the spirit and could make one aware of a hope they didn’t know they’d been holding on to.
Franklin’s voice is incomparable. She brings on sobs with a low hum and Hallelujahs with one note. It is of course the same voice that earned her the title “Queen of Soul,” shown now with the vibrant backing of a full chorus.
The bare-bones style and familial atmosphere leave plenty of space for the gospel choir, Franklin’s band, and her voice to work. The effect is that any audience, whether it’s in the Elmwood Theatre or the Baptist congregation of 1972, all are held in joyous rapture of Aretha, her songs, and her spirit.