In a church in south Los Angeles, in 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded a gospel album. Part service, part recording session, part concert, over two nights in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, the singer reinterpreted standards of the genre, accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir and gospel pioneer James Cleveland.
Admission was about $10 and included a fried chicken dinner, served during a break. The crowd was largely Cleveland’s congregation and friends of Franklin, with a scattering of record-label figures. The results were well received: Amazing Grace was the highest-selling disc of Franklin’s career – which spanned more than half a century – and remains the most popular live gospel music album of all time. But there was another product of those sessions, unseen for almost 50 years because of technical and legal challenges – the concerts were filmed.
Joe Boyd was in the church on the nights Amazing Grace was recorded. The producer, whose credits include the likes of Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and R. E. M., as well as soundtracks for classics A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, heard that Atlantic Records, recently bought by Warner, was bringing Aretha Franklin to Los Angeles to record. He quickly assembled a team to film it.
The project was initially overruled by company management, but moved forward after Sydney Pollack signed on – the director, fresh from nine Oscar nominations for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, was a fan of Franklin’s work.
For Boyd, the project felt ominous from the beginning. He raised concerns about how the sound was going to be synchronised with the film, only to be waved off with a “don’t worry, we’ve got it all under control” from a cameraman. “Filming live music with multiple cameras is a very different task than making a feature drama,” he told an executive. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” The executive replied: “What are you talking about? This is Sydney Pollack.”
Once an editor tried to cut the footage, though, it quickly became clear a crucial tool had been missed – no clapperboard had been used during filming, so sound and vision weren’t synchronised. It was a simple and strange mistake that would delay the film’s release by nearly half a century. Southern California Community Choir director Alexander Hamilton was hired to be a lip-reader, but after three months hardly two-and-a-half of the 14 hours had been synced. The task was deemed too impossible and expensive, the film boxed up in a warehouse, becoming one of Hollywood’s most famous incomplete projects.
“I don’t think they were prepared like they needed to be,” says producer Alan Elliott, who bought the footage in 2007. “Sydney had never made a documentary before.”
Elliott first heard about the unfinished project in 1990 when he was a new staff producer at Atlantic Records. He was forging a friendship with Jerry Wexler, who had produced Franklin’s Amazing Grace album and also worked with Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and Dusty Springfield. “At a certain point, in sort of a backhanded way of finding out what I loved most about him, [Wexler] said, ‘What’s your favourite thing I’ve ever worked on?’” recalls Elliott. “I said, ‘It’s Amazing Grace.’ And he said, ‘Well, we filmed it.’”
It wasn’t until 15 years later, with the music business in decline, that Elliott returned to film. He met with Sydney Pollack to buy the footage, completely unaware of the synchronisation issue. “Sydney never revealed the problem,” says Elliott. “We were always having a conversation of theoretics, as opposed to ‘where is the music?’”
Luckily, technology had caught up and Elliott was able to synchronise the film in just two weeks. “Then it was time to start mortgaging the house, and paying the editor,” he says, with a laugh.
“When we found out there were more problems, then there became the version of going to the casino and going, ‘Well, we lost the last one, so we’re going to just double down.’ It seemed like it wasn’t going to be that difficult.”
In 2011, Franklin sued Elliott for using her likeness without permission. Even after her original contract releasing the film rights was discovered, she sued again in 2015, just hours before the film was to be screened at the Telluride Film Festival.
“We never really spoke about it. It was all guesswork as to what she was thinking,” says Elliott. At the time, he didn’t know Franklin was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He now thinks perhaps she didn’t want the intensity that would surround the film’s release. “I understood it when I was told she had pancreatic cancer because I could see, from her point of view, it could be read as a eulogy,” he adds. “That completely made sense.”
After Franklin’s death in 2018, her family arranged to have the film released. Watching it is an experience in wondering what might have been. Over the years of ideation and attempts to finish it, concepts abounded. Pollack’s original vision was to weave in interviews with Franklin and her father – who makes a brief appearance – and other figures such as Wexler throughout the performance, to make a “talking heads” music documentary. The format is overdone to the point of satire now but was groundbreaking then, and would no doubt have left an indelible mark on the genre. There was also once talk of director Michel Gondry reuniting Franklin with the band and the choir for an epilogue of one final song, but this never eventuated.
And so the result is simple – no introductions, rose-coloured reflective voiceovers, backstage machinations or interviews to interrupt the action. At 87 minutes, Amazing Grace is neither overly long nor indulgent. It comes and goes in a flash, a rush of adrenaline, with none of the retakes of those long nights. It’s a work of cinematic chemistry, distilling the emotion – exhaustion, labour, joy, transcendence – into something that transports the viewer purely. Naturally, it feels like a miracle.
In the absence of everything else, the music, accompanied by the ebullient beauty of the traditions of the black church, is left to speak for itself. At the film’s beginning, James Cleveland explains to those assembled that Franklin could have recorded in a studio but chose instead to do it at New Temple for an authentic experience. “We want you tonight to be a part of the session,” he tells the audience, with a knowing smile. “We want you to let the folk know you’re here.”
No one needs to be asked twice – the congregation dances and sings without taking a breath, one woman so overcome she needs to be held. When Franklin belts the title song, Cleveland stumbles into a pew and sobs. Slowly, the boundaries between performer and audience fade away. The result doesn’t feel like an intimately rehearsed construction; instead, it’s vulnerable and human but never chaotic. Franklin’s gravitas ensures that.
Franklin, who doesn’t speak during the performance, is focused and transcendent, humble and devoid of any theatrics that ring false. But she is visibly overcome. Near the end, her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, grabs a cloth and wipes the sweat from her brow so she can continue singing.
Watching this work of cinematic revival, which has found its way through decades of setbacks, reveals what we’ve always known – that hindsight lends moments a significance beyond what we could ever anticipate.
“As great as it was, and we knew there was a great record being made, we didn’t realise that this kind of music-making was about to die,” says Joe Boyd. “We didn’t know someone in a little lab somewhere in Germany was inventing the drum machine. We didn’t know that three years later Aretha would be making slick pop-soul, and that three or four years later the world would be captivated by disco. We didn’t know that Bernard Purdie, the drummer, his beats would be sampled endlessly for the next 50 years on hip-hop records.
“This idea of going into a room with great musicians, a great choir, an unbelievable singer at the top of her skills and make a double LP in two nights live… we didn’t realise at the time it would be over. We know that now. That makes it more moving.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 17, 2019 as "Saving Grace".
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