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Film review: Amazing Grace

Film & TV

The film footage of Aretha Franklin recording her world-famous 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace has been unearthed from the archives and the result is a rough gem that will send your soul soaring.

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This 47-year-old gospel concert, filmed in Los Angeles, feels like watching film reels you’ve just dug out of a time capsule.

Recorded over two nights in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, the music from these sessions went on to become the celebrated live double-album Amazing Grace, which remains not only the best-selling gospel record of all time, but the best-selling album of Franklin’s career.

By this time, she was already the Queen of Soul, with 20 albums and 11 number-one singles to her name. The performance was her way of honouring how foundational her gospel roots were to both her voice and music.

These live sessions were originally filmed by director Sydney Pollack but, due to a severe technical glitch, the vision was shelved. Now the footage has been restored and assembled by Alan Elliott into a feature-length concert film that is unquestionably one of the greatest gospel performances you’ll ever have the privilege to see.

Franklin’s voice is absolutely transcendent. Her soaring range and joyful rhythm create something so majestic and powerful that to hear her sing is an ecstatic, visceral experience.

Visually, the movie has a grainy cinema-vérité feel. There are cameras, microphones and cables everywhere, and the church itself is quite nondescript. Added to this, on the first night the pews are only half full, which gives the production a dress-rehearsal atmosphere.

Franklin is stunning, her voice so confident and magnificent that it seems almost incongruous coming from the mouth of someone who appears to be so shy. She is all about the music, saying only a few words over the two nights. Gospel heavyweight Reverend James Cleveland and her father, Baptist Minister CF Franklin, speak for and about her as she sits to the side, looking almost embarrassed at the attention.

But aside from Franklin’s voice, the film’s surprising treat is in the candid footage of the congregation/audience and the silver-vested brilliance of the Southern California Community Choir. Franklin has them all up on their feet, everyone clapping and popping up with cries of “Sing it, Sister” when feeling the spirit.

The choir are magnificently ordinary yet they combine amazing musical talent with deep spiritual passion. They continually leap to their feet over the two nights, breaking into spontaneous song, tears and gesticulations.

Aside from the appearance of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts on the second night, the most memorable characters remain anonymous: the choir master with so much funk it could barely be contained, the ladies who take to the aisle possessed and shaking with spiritual jubilation, the everyday congregants with face-splitting smiles or tear-stained faces.

When Franklin’s father tells a story emphasising that this concert is not her coming back to the church, because she never left it, the singer confirms it with her music. Not just because these songs are all arrangements of hymns and traditionals, but because the same passion and fervour that we recognise in her R&B successes is right here in the songs of her gospel roots.

If you’re not a fan of gospel music going in, by the time the credits roll, I guarantee this film will have changed your mind.

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