A documentary presenting Aretha Franklin with choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972.
Directors: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack
Stars: Aretha Franklin, Reverand James Cleveland, C.L. Franklin
Release Date :5 April 2019 (USA)
Amazing Grace” is two days of Baptist church condensed to 90 minutes and injected directly into your soul. Shot in 1972 over a 48-hour period in Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, this stirring document captured the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. At the height of her powers, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys to her credit, she returned to the environment and the music that honed her voice and nurtured her soul. The result became her biggest seller, earning a Grammy and quite possibly more than a few conversions. This film is a powerful love letter to the Black Church, offering a soul-shaking introduction for the unfamiliar and a grandmotherly yank of the arm for those who know—it drags you from the theater straight into the pews.
So I’m here to bear witness. Hear me testify, oh readers. As the son of a minister, this sinner has the Baptist church in his DNA. My Sundays growing up were spent sweating profusely in suit and tie, uselessly fanning myself with popsicle stick paper fans and taking side bets with my cousins on who would get happy in church that day. Years later, I sang in the chwhyuh—to use the preacher pronunciation of the word choir—where I and my tuneful brethren were instructed by the most animated of choir directors. We sang the hymns that every Baptist knows and rode the familiar rhythms and cadences of the service that befell us every Sunday morning. Black church has a soothingly repeated checklist, and though I hadn’t been to worship in at least 25 years (it’s complicated, folks—judge not!), I remembered every item on that list. I sat in the theater gleefully awaiting every single one of them, and I was not disappointed.
Oh yes, “Amazing Grace” is like Sundays at your Baptist church with one major exception: You didn’t have Aretha Franklin as your lead soloist. It’s one thing to listen to her make a joyful noise unto the Lord courtesy of Atlantic Records, but seeing her do it is something entirely different and even more exalting. Those rafters you hear raising on the record now have a visual representation, aided and abetted by Re’s Master of Ceremonies and partner in crime, gospel legend Reverend James Cleveland. Though her entrances into the church on both nights of filming appropriately dripped with a diva’s swagger, Re is for the most part very shy on camera, at least until she starts to sing. She speaks perhaps seven words in the entire film, but don’t mistake that for insecurity. The camera catches her in rehearsal inquiring what key she should be singing in, and when she gets conflicting answers, she hilariously stares daggers at Rev. Cleveland.
Rev. Cleveland is the quintessential pastor, part court jester and part sermonizer, playing to the camera (at one point, he throws a handkerchief at it) and the crowd while maintaining structure and order. Under normal circumstances, he would easily steal the show. But, as he points out, these circumstances are extraordinary, so he happily cedes control to his lead singer. However, Rev. Cleveland figures prominently in the most astonishing moment in “Amazing Grace.” As Re sings the hymn that gives the film its name, the reverend is overwhelmed with emotion, rising from the piano to openly weep on camera. His emotion is genuine, infectious and of course, a perfectly placed interaction with the viewing audience. It’s an understandable reaction as well; Re’s voice is otherworldly in this number. She vibrates as she sings, the camera catching every bead of sweat pouring down her upturned face while her body becomes a radiant beacon beaming out her unshakeable faith.