No behind-the-scenes footage, no narration, and no talking heads, just the Queen of Soul doing what she does best. Filmed over two nights during Aretha Franklin’s performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January 1972, Amazing Grace premiered on Monday night at New York’s DocNyc, three months after Franklin’s passing. Although the documentary was filmed nearly 46 years ago, it hasn’t seen the light of day until now, after being shelved by Warner Brothers and caught up in legal wrangling for years. Producers Alan Elliott and Tirrell Whittley have finally completed the film shot by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack, who passed away in 2008.
“This film delivers so heavy on emotions,” Whittley tells CR. “It really is a testament to the kind of love that was actually poured into it. It was a labor of love.”
At the time of the filming, Franklin was months shy of her 30th birthday and had just emerged from a contentious marriage with her first husband. Franklin’s vocals are imbued with emotion and larger-than-life, as beads of sweat begin to gather on her brow as she belts out soulful renditions of Clara Ward’s “How I Got Over” and “Mary Don’t You Weep.” The gospel hymns she sang on Amazing Grace and the power behind her voice cemented Franklin as one of the most legendary singers of all time and earned her the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Performance. The album also sold over two million copies and remained her most successful throughout her illustrious 50-year-career.
Perhaps it’s the camera crew shuffling in the background in several shots or the glimpse of Mick Jagger peeking out from behind a pew in the back of the room, but the imperceptibility of the editing gives the film an unfiltered, authentic quality, transporting the viewer back to 1972 and into the church. At one point, Franklin’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin speaks from the front row and tells the congregation, “I say with pride that Aretha is not only my daughter, Aretha is just a stone singer.” When Franklin beams back in pride, you know the moment is genuine and not staged just for the cameras.
“It has a certain roughness and a certain authenticity to it that many documentaries don’t have,” Whittley says. “It’s not as polished and overly colored balanced. This movie has a certain level of grit and authenticity and that’s what makes it special. You hear Aretha being magnificent, and you see her beautiful smooth skin, her afro, and she’s wearing her fur. And the Aretha Franklin that you see, for some young people, it’s a different Aretha than they know.”
While Franklin became associated with the ongoing struggle for women’s and civil’s rights during the 1970s, performing at benefit concerts and lending her songs “Natural Woman” and “Respect” as trailblazing anthems for the movement, Whittley says that the version of Franklin in the film was more demure and unsure of herself, offering longtime music fans a glimpse into Franklin’s growth as both a singer and person.
“This Aretha Franklin was shy,” Whittley says. “She had just reached stardom, her dad was sitting in the audience, and she revered him and he cared for her, and you can see the love between her and her father. And how she adores the fact that he’s there and the way she smiles at him. And that is so different and it makes this film very, very special.”
Screening the film was hampered in the past when Franklin herself sued the filmmakers for using her likeness without permission. As a testament of their dedication to the project, Elliott and Whittley flew to Detroit and held a private screening at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. In the crowd were members of Franklin’s own family, consisting of her cousins, nieces, and nephews. Franklin’s family representative and niece Sabrina Owens later told the producers, “Let’s go do this. This is what Aretha would want. We want this film to be a great representation of her and her brand and what she stood for. There’s no better way than presenting her singing gospel music, which was so dear to her heart and part of her history.”
Even Franklin herself said she loved the documentary, according to Whittley. “We really, really are blessed and pleased that we now get to finally show it,” he says.
True to Franklin’s culture-quaking legacy, Whittley had one simple request for audience members at the premiere: “I want them to be unrestricted,” he says. “I want them to be unbridled in their worship and this should be different than most film premieres. I don’t want you to be quiet and if you want to hum along or sing along, stamp your feet, or clap, or if the spirit moves you to stand up. Whatever it takes, we want people to feel released because that’s exactly what this film is all about.”
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