Before Kanye West’s current FOMO-worthy “Sunday Service” became an ultra-exclusive weekly gathering, blending both the secular and spiritual in the luxurious hills of Calabasas, California (and other private locations), Aretha Franklin had already done something similar decades prior at a small Los Angeles Baptist church about 35 miles north.
Detroit’s own “Queen of Soul” used the two-day live recording session as the foundation for her Amazing Grace album. Also known as the greatest selling live gospel album of all time, Franklin found herself collaborating with childhood friend, musical mentor and genre luminary Rev. James Cleveland, alongside the Southern California Community Choir at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
Amazing Grace was Franklin at her rawest musically. Then again, she spent her younger years surrounded by the era’s greatest—from Mahalia Jackson to Albertina Walker—groomed by rockstar minister father Rev. C.L. Franklin, and singing for Martin Luther King’s Jr. funeral. Prior to Amazing Grace, Franklin had already released twenty albums, had 11 consecutive top charting pop and R&B singles, and five Grammys to her name. The legendary singer, who passed last year, didn’t necessarily have to touch this type of project, as she was already considered a well-established and groundbreaking veteran by then.
Released in June 1972, or half a year after she dropped her more politically tinged Young, Gifted & Black, the live album was also supposed to be the launch of Franklin’s transition into Hollywood via accompanying concert documentary. Warner Bros. even wanted to double bill it with Superfly at one point, according to reports. Initially directed by Sydney Pollack, Amazing Grace took nearly 40 years to see the light of day due to the sessions being filmed without a clapperboard, which totally messed up the visual and sound synchronization enough to make completion impossible.
In an age where audio and video synchronization software makes that process executable in mere minutes digitally, Pollack handing Alan Elliott the footage before his 2008 death for completion finally finally put the world a little bit closer to witnessing the most engrossing moment in American music. However, Franklin sued several times to prevent the film’s release for reasons that she never publicly addressed outside of likeness reasons. During a recent Q&A for the film in Los Angeles, Elliott Franklin’s refusal for the release allegedly stems from a long feud against Warner Bros. over their botched attempt at giving her a film career. Apparently, studio heads promised Franklin the Barbra Streisand treatment. Months after Franklin passed, some new terms were negotiated with the late singer’s estate in ensuring Amazing Grace’s release. Better late than never.
Instead of normal concert doc tropes formatted around pre-performance preparation/rehearsals, interviews, and the main act, Amazing Grace is simply a baptist church service led by the greatest vocalist to ever walk this green earth. Ahead of viewers getting their first glance at Franklin, we see a choir decked out in black and silver as they two-step their way to the choir stand—a sight to behold. Though there’s an inaudible moment where Franklin speaks in a quick time jump to the film’s only rehearsal moment, the only time one hears her is when she’s singing in front of the congregation and some music industry folks who seem out-of-place—outside of Mick Jagger, who looks like he is having the time of his life during the few moments the camera swings his way. Clara Ward’s appearance during the film’s later half manages to further the film’s big idea a cultura gap-building moment.
Fans of the album will most definitely enjoy the added visual layer to her classic renditions on gospel standards like “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “Old Landmark,” “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” and the titular track on a surface level. However, part of Amazing Grace’s overwhelming charm comes from the controlled musical triangle between Franklin, Cleveland, and assistant choir director Alexander Hamilton in real time, even during technical difficulties. Watching moments where congregation members catch the Holy Ghost or the appearance from Rev. C.L. Franklin during the second half only hones in the feeling that the particular moment adds a tangible layer that makes the recording feel larger than life in a way the recording couldn’t capture. Atmospherically, viewers are allowed a better context as all the musical pieces come together effortlessly in the midst of spiritual sweatbox, because everyone is sweating profusely during the concert doc’s 87 minute timespan.
In an age where the connected generation always has an idea of what’s happening, the idea that the visual treatment for Amazing Grace would have possibly vanished isn’t a farfetched idea considering the circumstances. There’s a real elegance on display at all times. Amazing Grace is being released just weeks before Beyoncé’s Netflix-fueled Homecoming special, which highlights last year’s much discussed performance. While Yoncé paid homage to the nucleus of Black academia more commonly referred to as HBCUs (and put out a whole lot quicker), Amazing Grace does the same for the Black church in all its joyful theatrics.