What I can tell you about going to see Amazing Grace is that from start to finish I couldn’t keep a dry eye. Getting old and sentimental, maybe. But that’s the power of African American gospel music, supercharged in this case by the presence of Aretha Franklin, whose career reached its apogee on the two specially arranged evenings — January 13 and 14, 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts — that the film documents.
The story behind its release is a long and tangled one, starting with the disastrous failure of the originally designated director, Sydney Pollack (who was in between They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Way We Were), to ensure that sound and visuals were properly synched. But it’s here now, finally pieced together, not too late to thrill us to our bones for 87 minutes while casting light on the artistry of one of the great musicians of the 20th century.
After decades of familiarity with the album containing the music from these evenings, for me the film’s biggest revelation was the unstructured nature of the event. Aretha wears a gown each night and the Southern California Community Choir are in their glittering silver and black uniforms, but there’s no serious attempt to dress up the setting or the presentation. The Reverend James Cleveland acts as MC, also playing piano and duetting with the star, but the ambiance is less like a formal service than I had anticipated, although of course the active relationship between singer and congregation is entirely that of a black Baptist church.
A few things crossed my mind while immersed in this remarkable film. The first was the impression made by Aretha’s absolute absorption in her music: to watch her sing with eyes closed in concentration, to see how the sound comes out of her mouth, adds a whole dimension to the experience of simply listening to her records. She was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday, and we know that she had already lived a complicated life, but at times as she sings her face is movingly irradiated with a kind of innocence.
The second thing was the looming presence of two men, one of them her father and the other her mentor. The Rev C. L. Franklin is in attendance on the second night, sitting in the front row, next to his long-time lover, the regal Clara Ward, who was one of Aretha’s idols. He walks to the lectern to give a little speech, and later takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his daughter’s face as she begins “Never Grow Old”. It’s a tender gesture, but also a rather ostentatious one. James Cleveland’s quasi-proprietorial moment comes when there’s a kerfuffle in the audience — a woman, perhaps possessed by an excess of the divine spirit, is hustled away — and he moves to sit close by Aretha, above and behind her, positioning himself to protect her against the possibility of further disturbance.
The third was the importance of her piano-playing. She accompanies herself on only two of the pieces, “Never Too Old” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”, but the difference between her playing and that of Cleveland — who knows all the required licks, of course — is marked. Jerry Wexler always said that it was essential to have her playing on her records, and he was right. (Think how her piano reshaped “I Say a Little Prayer” or “You Send Me”, for example.) She first recorded “Never Too Old” at the age of 15; this version, stretched over a quarter of an hour without ever going into tempo, is one of the finest, purest, deepest things she ever did.
The fourth thing was how little we see of the band on screen. The contribution of Ken Lupper on Hammond organ, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Pretty Purdie on drums and Pancho Morales on congas is vital to things like the slow 12/8 rock of the epic “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, but the musicians don’t seem to have been of much interest to Pollack. (The sound mix, too, is not as pristine as it was in the Complete Recordings edition released in 1999, where we hear them hitting a perfect groove on the instrumental riff from “My Sweet Lord” at the end of each performance.) Lupper, a local church organist, uses his B3 to support the piano with an exquisite touch and is one of the unsung stars of the night; the other is Alexander Hamilton, the choirmaster, whose lithe conducting encourages the massed voices to answer Aretha with such electrifying passion and precision.
The fifth and last thought concerned the air of semi-chaos caught by the cameras, and how important its effect seems now. Imagine what would happen if a 21st-century soul diva of comparable eminence — Beyoncé, say — were to undertake a similar project today. There would be no mildly dishevelled camera operators in shot, no moments of on-screen uncertainty over the running order, no empty chairs, no grain in the image — yet those are among the factors that, like the slightly rough sound, make Amazing Grace feel so real.
Joe Boyd, who worked for several years with Alan Elliott on getting the film into shape for general release, calls it “the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African American secular and religious music.” No one, he says, makes music like this any more. It’s tempting to endorse that judgment, although I can’t go along with the way it seems to disparage the creativity and spontaneity of more recent generations. Times change, and ways of making music change with them. But I will say that, without question, Amazing Grace is one of the greatest expositions of African American music ever committed to film. Those who laboured to bring it out of the darkness of the vaults, turning cinemas around the world into sanctified churches in the process, deserve our profound gratitude.
* The film is in British cinemas now. The Complete Recordings 2-CD set is still available on Rhino/Atlantic. Aaron Cohen’s book Amazing Grace, in the 33 1/3 series, contains a great deal of valuable background and testimony, as does Respect, David Ritz’s biography of Aretha, published by Little, Brown.