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Faith and Change in ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘The Silence of Others’

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Decades after a team of filmmakers captured the sounds and sights of two evenings of worship at a Baptist church in Los Angeles—decades after those services yielded a double album that became the best-selling record of Aretha Franklin’s career—the documentary Amazing Grace has been completed and released into theaters. Surely the first and most overwhelming emotion that ought to be felt by anyone with ears in working order—ears, and a heart—is gratitude.

Franklin, the voice of the century, was 29 years old on those January evenings in 1972 and was returning to the roots of her music, not alone but in the midst of fellowship. With her were her lifelong friend, the Reverend James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, a handful of her regular studio musicians, and an invited congregation. Despite the commercial trappings of the event—and it must be said, at once, that commerce is no stranger to the church—the film delivers Franklin at the height of her powers, as the leading celebrant of a communal outpouring. Which is to say, Amazing Grace is Franklin and a living tradition united, Franklin borne aloft on the wings of saints, exponential Franklin.

Here’s some of what was inaccessible on the record album, and which you can now see:

Members of the choir rising here and there at the sound of her voice, like scattered, irrepressible shoots in early spring.

The pummeling legs of congregants who have released themselves from the pews and dance out their exultation.

James Cleveland handing off the piano midway through “Amazing Grace,” so he can sit to the side, bury his face in his hands, and sob.

The shimmer on Franklin’s face, which glistens with light reflected off of her sequined gown and the sweat of inspiration.

Add the experience of awe to that first, natural response of gratitude. The people who gathered at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January 1972—some of them, anyway—were united in the belief that God works wondrously among us. They had this music as evidence. You, moviegoer, have Amazing Grace; impart the credit however you will.

Then, having felt gratitude and awe, you can proceed to the more troubling emotions.

Sitting in a front pew on the second night, in all his manicured, pomaded, electric-blue-suited glory, was Franklin’s father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, accompanied by his longtime lover, the renowned gospel singer Clara Ward. Let me not hesitate to give C. L. Franklin his due: He was a favorite preacher of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and one of his close associates. He was also the man who made his daughter a soloist in his church when she had just turned 10, took her on the road starting when she was 11, and produced her first recording, “Never Grow Old,” when she was 14, a year after she gave birth to her first child. Now, under her father’s eyes, Aretha Franklin leaves the pulpit (where she has performed for most of the two evenings), sits at the piano, and returns to that first number of her recording career, giving it perhaps the deepest and most stirring performance of the entire event. You needn’t have read anything about her life to see that she’s singing “Never Grow Old” for her father, that she’s taken on the demeanor of an obedient and perhaps frightened child, that she’s weeping.

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Thanks !

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