The long-awaited documentary on the making of “Amazing Grace” is indeed a spiritual experience.
Aretha Franklin’s award-winning double-platinum live album was recorded during two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Major technical difficulties — and Franklin’s distrust of just about everything — had kept the film documenting the album’s recording from being released for 46 years, as award-winning director Sidney Pollack had failed to properly sync the audio. But before his 2008 death, Pollack turned over the footage to producer Alan Elliott, who worked with Franklin’s family after her death last year to finally release the documentary.
When the album “Amazing Grace” was recorded, Franklin was an established, Grammy-winning recording artist known for hits such as “Think,” “Natural Woman,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Respect.” When introducing Franklin on the first night of the “Amazing Grace” musical event, gospel icon Rev. Dr. James Cleveland made it plain.
“Many of you here tonight have never heard Aretha sing gospel,” Cleveland said. “You’re here tonight for a thrill. She can sing anything.”
When Franklin entered the sanctuary, she looked beautiful, wearing little makeup. Her Afro and kaftan-type dress gave her a young ingenue appearance. She was shy of 30 years old but was an experienced performer.
Franklin didn’t smile much. She was focused, calm, and attentive, opening by accompanying herself on the piano for an Aretha-ized rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”
I loved “Amazing Grace” from the first time I heard it. The backstory behind the production did not matter to me, as the album was a masterpiece on its own merit. This documentary tells us what contributed to the making of the biggest selling gospel album which remains on charts today.
Members of Franklin’s band were the heart of the album’s recording. Perched in the small, cramped space at the front of the church were respected session musicians Bernard Purdie (drums), Chuck Rainey (bass) and Cornell Dupree (guitar). Franklin was a superior, self-taught pianist, but Cleveland accompanied her on most of the songs performed during the documentary. The Southern California Community Choir, founded by Cleveland, provided background vocals.
Alexander Hamilton, the choir director, was in full command. I assumed that Franklin’s backup singers, The Sweethearts of Soul, which included her sister, Carolyn, would be with her for this New Temple Missionary Baptist Church gospel set, but they weren’t.
Gospel great Clara Ward entered the church, and as the camera pans the audience in the sanctuary, Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are visible in the front row. Everyone knew that heavenly magic would soon shower down on those privileged to be in the church.
After Franklin sang a few songs, her father, Rev. Dr. C.L. Franklin, was introduced. When he strolled up to the front of the church, his magnetism was immediately evident. He took in acknowledgments from congregants and spoke about his daughter.
“I know that you were impressed with that gift that is hard to describe,” the elder Franklin told the audience of his daughter’s voice. “But I say with pride, not only is Aretha my daughter, she’s just a stone singer!”
The documentary is currently in select theaters, with a wider release set for April 19. It is now playing in the D.C. area at Landmark Bethesda Row and Landmark E Street Cinema.