Long-buried con­cert film is a pow­er­ful trib­ute to Queen of Soul

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY ADAM GRA­HAM The Detroit News

For close to 50 years, Aretha Franklin’s “Amaz­ing Grace” con­cert film was a buried trea­sure. Now that it’s fi­nally be­ing un­earthed, it can sim­ply be con­sid­ered a trea­sure.

The 1972 doc­u­men­tary, which pre­mieres at New York’s DOC NYC fes­ti­val on Mon­day, is an ex­tra­or­di­nary cel­e­bra­tion of life, mu­sic, and the gospel ac­cord­ing to Aretha. Filmed over two nights dur­ing Aretha’s leg­endary per­for­mances at Los An­ge­les’ New Tem­ple Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in Jan­uary ’72, the film has been lost, nearly de­stroyed and tied up in le­gal wran­gling for decades. That it’s at long last be­ing seen now is both a joy and a tragedy: just months af­ter the death of the Queen of Soul, it stands as a tow­er­ing tes­ta­ment to her ex­tra­or­di­nary gifts, but it’s a shame Aretha isn’t around to see it be re­leased and re­ceived like the clas­sic that it is.

The per­for­mance it­self has long been con­sid­ered Aretha’s finest hour, the jewel in her Queen of Soul crown. Re­leased as a live al­bum just months af­ter it was recorded, it sold more than 2 mil­lion copies, and be­came the best-sell­ing al­bum of her ca­reer. It reaf­firmed her gospel roots: Af­ter knock­ing out eight al­bums in four years for At­lantic Records — “Young, Gifted and Black” was re­leased less than two weeks af­ter the per­for­mance — “Amaz­ing Grace” was her way of re­con­nect­ing with the church mu­sic on which she was raised.

It came as her first mar­riage was hit­ting the skids, and all of that strife and stress, both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional, is im­bued into Aretha’s vo­cals, which ar­rive as if de­liv­ered from on high. The power of her per­for­mance has never been in doubt. But

see­ing Aretha — just two months shy of her 30th birth­day — per­form th­ese hymns, and watch­ing oth­ers re­act to her, fi­nally com­pletes the puz­zle. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween hear­ing the call of a World Se­ries-win­ning home run and watch­ing it with your own eyes. See­ing truly is be­liev­ing.

The doc­u­men­tary is straight­for­ward: Aside from some setup early on, it’s just the per­for­mance. No be­hindthe-scenes footage, no talk­ing head in­ter­views, no nar­ra­tion. (Aretha her­self barely speaks, save for a few asides.) In this case, noth­ing ex­tra is needed, and it would only serve to dis­tract from the per­for­mance around which the film is built.

We see di­rec­tor Syd­ney Pol­lack — be­cause of the work done to the film fol­low­ing Pol­lack’s 2008 death, the film is be­ing re­leased with­out a di­rec­tor’s credit — and his cam­era crew set­ting up their equip­ment, and we see the crew in the back­grounds of shots through­out the film. They add an­other di­men­sion to the per­for­mance: Whether they’re kneel­ing on the floor in front of Aretha, stand­ing up on chairs and lad­ders be­hind her or can­vass­ing the crowd, their pres­ence adds to the raw feel­ing of the film.

Cam­eras catch Mick Jag­ger, stand­ing up in a pew near the back of the church, and Aretha’s fa­ther, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who takes a seat in the front row. When Franklin ad­dresses the con­gre­ga­tion, brag­ging about his daugh­ter — “I say with pride that Aretha is not only my daugh­ter, Aretha is just a stone singer,” he says — Aretha’s eyes light up with pride. It’s clear he’s her hero, and vice versa.

The South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Com­mu­nity Choir, sport­ing sparkling sil­ver vests and seated be­hind Aretha, are in­valu­able in their sup­port­ing roles, es­pe­cially their an­i­mated re­ac­tions dur­ing Aretha’s per­for­mance of “Amaz­ing Grace” it­self.

But the star of the show, clearly, is Aretha. Eyes clenched, per­spi­ra­tion drip­ping down her neck, chan­nel­ing some­thing deeply spir­i­tual from way down in her soul, she’s giv­ing her all, an oth­er­worldly singer cap­tured in her ele­ment. She stands with con­fi­dence at the mi­cro­phone, no flail­ing arm move­ments, all poise. She’s ac­com­pa­nied by the Rev. James Cleve­land, who in­tro­duces her by telling the crowd, “many of you who’ve never had the op­por­tu­nity to hear Aretha sing gospel, you’re in for a great thrill.” He’s not kid­ding. And with this film, old fans and new con­verts alike can ex­pe­ri­ence this once-in-al­ife­time con­cert in a way that’s long over­due.

Amaz­ing, in­deed.

Liq­uid Soul

The long-lost film was shot over two nights dur­ing Aretha Franklin’s leg­endary 1972 per­for­mances in Los An­ge­les.

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