Amazing Grace (2019)
Directed by Sidney Pollack and Alan Elliott
This weekend, huge swaths of Americans are watching a concert documentary amplifying black female excellence. But I’m not just talking about Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” (I would highly recommend seeing that, too, for the record). Though it earned Oscar eligibility last year, “Amazing Grace,” the lost Sydney Pollack-directed film documenting Aretha Franklin’s record-smashing 1972 gospel album, saved its theatrical release to grace 2019. But now, America is able to finally see this epiphanic film on the big screen.
After finding success with recordings like “Respect” and “Think,” Aretha Franklin traveled to Los Angeles to return to her roots, recording an album of gospel favorites in front of a live audience at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. “Amazing Grace” sold more records than any gospel album in history to that point. Director Sydney Pollack (“Jeremiah Johnson,” “Tootsie”) was on hand with cameramen committed to thoroughly documenting every angle. Due to technical difficulties, Pollack was unable to complete the film, and once it was finally complete about ten years ago its release was blocked by Aretha herself. It makes its eventual release, three months after her death, feel sort of naughty and unofficial, but after seeing it there’s no way it does anything but reaffirm one’s belief in Aretha unequaled greatness.
I’ve listened to the “Amazing Grace” album many times, but seeing the documentary is like seeing a cube after only knowing a square. The film gives the music an extra layer of depth. It made me feel emotions I never felt listening to the music. About halfway into the film, when Aretha sings the titular song, my eyes welled up before she could get through the notoriously drawn-out first word. But somehow, putting the film’s emotional climax in the middle barely stops its momentum, and the footage from Day 2 brings new songs and new faces in the crowd (like Mick Jagger, and Aretha’s father, who is brought up to speak).
Sydney Pollack decided to let the concert do the talking, and his camera only twice left the main sanctuary (at the very beginning and in between days, to briefly show what was going on as the singers prepared “backstage”). But his footage serves as not only a making-of for the album, but also for the documentary itself. Cameras frequently catch footage of other cameras, and we can see decision-making happening in real time. It’s a real testament to Aretha’s abilities that she could pull off something so incredible in such undesirable conditions—the cameras all around her; the excited crowd; her dad at one point wiping sweat from her face, mid-song. Despite all that, Aretha pulled off what at once feels like technical precision and authentic soul. Even after watching the documentary, it’s impossible to tell how someone could sound so perfect without it feeling forced. When people speak of gospel singers being possessed by the Lord, as if He was singing through them…this is the clearest evidence of that I have ever witnessed. Even when Aretha looks exhausted—and she does more than once—she never falters.
But she didn’t do it alone. “Amazing Grace” devotes screen time to the Southern California Community Choir, who deserve the recognition. When they finally stand up and start clapping, it’ll be difficult for you to stay in your seat. Maybe this one is better watched at home, or at church, somewhere you can jump up and clap along. But wherever you see it, the spirit will find you. You’ll feel it.