The Resurrection of Aretha Franklin in ‘Amazing Grace’
In an interview as part of HBO’s 2008 documentary series The Blacklist, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks used some of her time to talk about black people and our tendency to be active participants in our entertainment, regardless of the venue. She recalls how, when her 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog first hit Broadway, black attendees showed up late and didn’t turn their phones off. They wore baggy jeans to Broadway and shouted at the action unfolding on the stage. Recalling the zeal of these crowds, Parks insisted that we need to celebrate and seek such moments, and to treat them with as much reverence as whatever is prompting them from the stage or screen.
I like this idea—that it’s noble for black people to react viscerally to work that is created for us, and to respond in a language we know well. This dialogue between performer and audience is perhaps best understood in the context of the black church, where one’s exuberant behavior can be easily forgiven—or at least ascribed to one’s being carried away by the music, or the spirt, or both at the same time. That ethos spills out of the church into living rooms during movie nights with friends or in a whole movie theater with strangers, where my pals shout at the screen during Girl’s Trip or a Fast and Furious movie. There is something valuable about wanting the small world around you to know how richly you are being moved, so that maybe some total stranger might encounter your stomp, your clap, your shout, and find themselves moved.
And a beloved singer coming back to life on screen is an excellent reason to be moved.
Aretha Franklin did not want the footage of her Amazing Grace live recording to be released. It’s worth mentioning this because the film that documented the recording process (also titled Amazing Grace) glosses over it during the opening, with a small mention of how “the footage was shelved”—which is true, but doesn’t tell the entire story of why the movie was never released until now.
In January of 1972, Aretha went to Los Angeles to record an album of gospel music over the course of two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, accompanied by her old friend Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. The recording of the album was filmed by Warner Brothers and was slated for release around the same time as the audio recording, to be screened as a double-bill with the film Super Fly.
The first problem was that the film’s director, Sydney Pollack, didn’t use a clapperboard before each take while recording. The process was unpredictable and free-flowing, sometimes improvisational. And so there was no seamless place to start and re-start takes. As a result, the sound and picture were not synchronized, and because there was no easy way to restore it at the time, the film sat in a vault until 2008, when it was turned over to producer Alan Elliott.
It took Elliott two years to synchronize the film, and he had designs to release it in 2011, but Aretha, by that point in her late 60s, did not want the film released unless she was guaranteed proper compensation. When Elliott attempted to screen the film at festivals, she sued repeatedly. (Aretha wanted a large share of the profits that the film was slated to gain, and that seems fair: She was the basis for whatever success the film might have, and therefore had a stake in trying to control how the film appeared and got distributed.)
After Aretha died in 2018, Elliott was summoned to Detroit by a friend of Aretha’s surviving family members. He was asked to show them the film, which none of them had ever seen. And just like that, the clouds that had obscured this magic for 46 years slowly began to break.
It must be said that Amazing Grace is a singular album, even without footage to bring it to life. It’s not just an excellent collection of songs—it’s an album that Aretha didn’t have to make in the first place. By 1972, she was established as a star. She’d had a run of massive success, with 10 singles in a row landing in the top 10 of the R&B charts. She’d headlined major venues like the Fillmore West. Still, there was little risk in her decision to make an album showcasing a return to the church. As a child in Detroit, she had first come into her voice at New Bethel Baptist Church, under the guidance of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin.
With a voice like Aretha’s, the distance between soul music and music of the soul is short, so, at worst, Amazing Grace was slated to be an album of great singing that might read as a departure for some of her new fans, and a return for some of her older fans.
Yet it became, and remains, Aretha’s best-selling album of all time—and the best-selling live gospel album of all time. It won Aretha a Grammy in 1973. With the album’s phenomenal success in mind, I think about the small but important distance between gospel as popular music and gospel as a vehicle for salvation: how it is possible to take in the music without much concern for salvation, but still be carried off to a place that feels holy.
The songs on Amazing Grace are traditional gospel songs. Some are re-worked or re-imagined, but they’re not like many of the contemporary gospel songs you can hear on the radio today, where the lyrical gestures toward the beloved could be of a spiritual nature, or else something more flimsy and carnal. Aretha sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Amazing Grace,” and her renditions of these songs are not about extracting the divine for the sake of vague romanticism, but rather about finding new ways to get the divine into the bodies of each listener, even the ones who might not have been expecting it. This is Aretha, at the height of her game, coming back to see if she could still match the swelling voices of a choir; to see if the words of a hymn could still move her to tears, mid-song. It is good for a person to be remembered for the songs they choose to sing when they could’ve sung anything else.
Still, as spectacular as the album is, it must also be said that you do need to see the film, all two hours of it, start to finish. It proceeds with an emotional momentum that makes the film feel much shorter than it is. There are too many delicious moments, even outside of the songs. Oh, the entrances. On night one, Reverend Cleveland summons in the Southern California Community Choir, and from the church entrance a row of glistening silver vests sways down toward the aisles. On night two of the recording, Aretha shows up to the church in a glorious sprawl of a fur coat, and the beams of light from above trip over themselves in an attempt to light her path to the stage. On that same night, Mick Jagger, tucked away in the back during one song, stands up and realizes that he has no choice but to clap along, the anxiety leaping to his face as he recognizes he might not be on beat. Choir director Alexander Hamilton, through precise wizardry, pushes the choir to an exuberant, emotional tipping point before knowing just when to fall back. Throughout, you are transfixed with Aretha herself, wearing an immovable and immaculate afro like a crown, that tricky and generous light once again dancing on each hair like a concerned parent, keeping it in place.
Aretha doesn’t speak much during the film itself. Most of what the viewer hears from her is that unmistakable singing voice, which now, I will say, feels to me like an arrow to the heart. Even after a lifetime of hearing the voice of Aretha Franklin, to hear it again is to hear it anew. There’s a bright spark of joyful pain to see it coming directly from her body, which is no longer tethered to this fragile and faulty earth. Aretha was one of those singers who sang with her whole face. Her face was generally stoic (and maybe a bit nervous) during the parts where she had to hold back, and when she sang, her cheekbones rose into small mountains that the corners of her mouth attempted to scale but never quite succeeded. If the film had no sound, perhaps, in such moments, it might appear as though she were in the throes of laughter with an old friend.
This is a theme of Aretha’s performances on film, where a viewer can see the mechanics behind her natural ability to draw out a song. The church setting furthers this natural instinct of hers. It’s the improvisational nature of the spirit: If the voice calling the words out is good enough, any words will do. A song can go on forever.
And some of them feel like they might. The title track, for example, unfurls for nearly 11 minutes, breaking into a sort of spiritual chaos in the middle that carries until the end. The choir members themselves lose all composure and break out into fits, jumping up and down and throwing their hands in the air. At one point, Reverend Cleveland takes a moment to sit down and put his face in his hands, overwhelmed by the impossibility of it all. “Amazing Grace” has been sung and heard in countless renditions, but never like this. The entire last minute and a half of the song is Aretha doing Aretha, finding a new note to carry into another, even more powerful note, while the audience shouts—half at her to keep going, and half at the Lord to keep pushing her forward.
Toward the end of the second night, Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, delivers a few words. He recalls someone telling him they’d seen Aretha on television, and that they’d be glad when she came back to the church. At this point, he pauses for a moment, steps back from the mic, and smirks. “And I told them, listen baby….”
And, with that, the audience spills out again with cheers and shouts, because they already know what is coming next. It was the declaration of what the night had proven, of what they’d already understood: Aretha had never left the church. She’d been singing with the spirit the whole time.
The camera bounces again to Aretha, who has maintained a quiet focus on stage while her father praised her. She lets out a little half-smile.
The final song of the film is “Never Grow Old,” which takes nearly 10 glorious minutes to get through. At the very beginning of the song, C.L. Franklin rises from his seat to gently wipe the sweat that has gathered around Aretha’s forehead and eyes, while she remains singing, not missing a beat. Later, Aretha’s idol, Clara Ward, will scrunch up her face and roll her eyes back in ecstasy at one of Aretha’s impossible high notes, a gesture many of us know to mean you better go ahead—a reverent disbelief when all other emotions fail. Then there’s what some may think is the end of the song, but real ones know is just the middle, when audience members—who, by this point, might as well be choir members—begin flooding the aisles and holding onto the edge of the piano to avoid passing out.
As great as the film is, it all comes down to these 10 minutes. Everything it had been lifting a viewer toward is here: the complete and joyous unraveling of a room brought closer to something holy, with no one wanting that feeling to end. And Aretha in the middle, doing her best to draw it out for as long as she can.
Some concert films focus solely on the stage and nothing else; take The Last Waltz, where a person watching could at times forget that an audience is even in the building. Others, like Jay Z’s Fade to Black, offer large, sweeping shots of the crowd and the stage in almost equal measure. What is fascinating about the filming of Amazing Grace is that its makers seem to have understood that, in the gospel setting, the audience is a part of the stage. The audience, through its engagement, cannot be separated from the experience, or from the document of that experience. The footage is raw, which means that there are cameramen scurrying around and all kinds of helpers moving in the background. But what that also means is that, in its purest form, there is an audience of black people in direct conversation with what they are witnessing, uninhibited and unafraid of anyone who might demand that they quiet themselves.
And here I say that I surely saw this film in a small Los Angeles theater with some folks who were truly there to worship—some folks who gathered outside the theater on a Sunday in outfits that looked like they were either coming from church or going there after or maybe counting this as their holy excursion for the day: wide hats and striped suits and shoes shiny enough to see my reflection in. When people on the screen in front of us caught something resembling the spirit, these people expressed their own version of it too: laughing loudly at all of Reverend Cleveland’s jokes and throwing their hands up in praise when Aretha bent yet another single-syllable word into several seconds of beautiful sound. Upon leaving the theater, all of us sat down and exhaled a bit before parting ways without speaking, because what could we say to each other anyway?
My relationship to faith changes daily, but I’d like to think that one part of believing is our shared stumbling toward the witness of something that was once thought to be unbelievable. A film, unearthed, allowing resurrection for more than just a voice.
Pacific Standard’s Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.