In “Amazing Grace,” a 46-year-old gospel concert movie that feels like a rough gem unearthed in a time capsule, Aretha Franklin, standing at the pulpit of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles, delivers a hymn called “Climbing Higher Mountains” that gets everyone in the place standing up and roused. The audience is up, the singers in the Southern California Community Choir are up, Mick Jagger, lurking in the back of the church, is up, but what really reaches up is Franklin’s voice. She always had a range that sprawled (just think of the winding melody in her transcendent cover of “I Say a Little Prayer”), but in “Amazing Grace” her voice never leaves the higher register. The effect is ecstatic; she sounds like the holiest of trumpets, with every note piercingly bright yet as soft as velvet. Listening to Franklin, you feel like you could ride that voice into the heavens. She’s not just a singer, she’s a human chariot.
“Amazing Grace” is a filmed record of the two nights, in January 1972, during which Franklin recorded the gospel performances that became the celebrated live double album “Amazing Grace.” It remains not only the best-selling gospel record of all time, but the best-selling album of Franklin’s 50-year career. She was then at the height of her stardom, with 20 albums and 11 number-one singles (all the iconic hits: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” etc.) under her belt, and she wanted to do a record that honored the formative gospel roots of her youth.
Warner Bros. hired director Sydney Pollack to film the sessions (this was the early-’70s heyday of the grainy verité concert film), and in “Amazing Grace” we see Pollack wandering around the church, directing the action and at one point holding the camera. But the project wound up getting shelved. There was a severe technical glitch (much of the sound was out of sync with the images), and later, when attempts were made to solve that issue, Franklin herself repeatedly blocked attempts to release the movie. It’s not clear why, but now that it’s been lovingly restored and assembled (the sound is clear as a bell, and in perfect sync), “Amazing Grace” can stand as a essential filmed record of what is undoubtedly one of the greatest gospel performances you’ll ever see.
Visually, the movie isn’t much to speak of. The church, a plain and rather dilapidated place, looks at once dingy and overbright, and during the first night it’s only half-full, creating the atmosphere of a filmed rehearsal. But Aretha herself is incandescent. And the movie, while as neutrally shot as a news-magazine segment (there’s about a minute of split screen, and there should have been a lot more of it), has a structure that quietly builds. Franklin was 29 when “Amazing Grace” was recorded, and in her silky flowing outfits and light blue eye shadow and a set of earrings that look like bejeweled clusters of tiny snowballs, she’s a magnetic paradox: a diva tucking in her ego in front of the lord. She almost never speaks between songs, but her contact with those who’ve gathered to be in the audience is, if anything, even more direct. She’s got her mind on higher things.
One can speculate that Mick Jagger dropped by because he was still finishing up the recording of “Exile on Main Street,” an album as dunked in the raw majesty of gospel as any in rock history. Another telling figure who appears is Franklin’s father, the Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, whom she toured with as a child gospel singer. He’s dapper and aristocratic, like Billy Dee Williams as a churchly power player. In the few minutes they’re at the front of the church together, we can see how Aretha gained strength from him — at one point, he lovingly wipes the sweat from her face — and, at the same time, how she felt the need to win r-e-s-p-e-c-t from a world of men who felt as entitled as he looks. Apart from Aretha, the most memorable characters in the movie remain those whose names we don’t know: the praise dancers who get up out of the audience, jubilant and possessed, to shake like volcanic vessels, and the occasional sparkly-silver-vested member of the Southern California Community Choir, who will literally pop up, with a spontaneity that’s at once touching and comic, when the spirit moves them.
Franklin’s collaborator in the concerts was the Reverend James Cleveland, the gospel legend who did as much as anyone to popularize the form beyond the black church (he won four Grammys). At one point, the burly, deeply playful and affectionate reverend tells a story about how he was picking up clothes at the cleaners, and the woman who worked there asked him if Aretha, whom she had seen on TV the night before, was ever going to go back to the church. The reverend replied, “She never left the church.”
Watching “Amazing Grace,” we see how profoundly that’s true. Not just because Franklin sings praise to Jesus with the full flower of her virtuosity, but because there’s such a remarkable continuity between the religious fervor she expresses here and the “secular” fervor of her pop and R&B songs. Most of the numbers in “Amazing Grace” are hymns or traditionals, like the lilting “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or the meditative “Precious Memories,” and a few are reconfigured versions of great pop numbers of the spirit, like Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” or Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.” But the sound is never pious or autumnal. It’s majestic and soaring and athrob with rhythm.
If the blues is the formal and spiritual foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the joy of gospel that gave rock its roll. That’s what you hear in “Amazing Grace.” The movie reveals how the fundamental distinction between “rock ‘n’ roll” and “rhythm and blues” was not only racist at its core, but a way for the consumer culture to slice the God out of music that was invented as a way to talk to God. In “Amazing Grace,” Aretha Franklin transcends the blues by saying a little prayer — or singing one — for all of us.