L uck­ily for mu­sic lovers, when Aretha Franklin stepped into New Bethel Bap­tist Church in Los An­ge­les in 1972 to record Amaz­ing Grace, cam­eras were there to cap­ture the in­cred­i­ble live per­for­mance.

But luck wasn’t on the side of di­rec­tor Syd­ney Pol­lack, who had been hired by Warner Bros to make a doc­u­men­tary about the mak­ing of the al­bum – which went on to be­come the high­est-sell­ing live gospel mu­sic al­bum of all time.

His film crew didn’t use clap­pers, so they were un­able to sync the vi­sion and sound.

“It was a sim­ple mis­take,” says film­maker Alan El­liott. “Back in the olden days when they started mak­ing talk­ing pic­tures, they used to have a clap­per board to sync the au­dio to the video. Why they didn’t bring one I don’t know, but that’s what they did.”

When El­liott heard about the shelved, never-be­fore-seen footage, he knew he had to bring it back to life. What he didn’t re­alise was it would turn into a 30-year project full of tech­ni­cal and le­gal hur­dles.

“At the time it seemed like a good idea, but if you take the to­tal­ity of all the time and en­ergy and you’d told me when I started that it would be this then I would have said ‘I don’t know if I’m go­ing to sign up for that’,” he says. “But there never came a time where I said ‘Oh well, this will never hap­pen’. It just felt like this is a set­back but we’ll get through it.”

Us­ing the lat­est in dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy to fix up the botched doc­u­men­tary turned out to be one of the most straight­for­ward as­pects of the project.

“With dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, you have the abil­ity to put it into a com­puter and have 2000 pieces of film as op­posed to hang­ing them like you did in ‘73,” El­liott says. “Back then they had to hang it with a pa­per clip on a fish­ing line and sync it to a tape to be able to sys­tem­at­i­cally go through it.

“For the edit­ing we used de­lib­er­ately long takes so you can feel like you’re in the room and you will get swal­lowed up in that mo­ment.”

The other rea­son why the film is only just get­ting re­leased in 2019 is be­cause Franklin her­self blocked its re­lease by su­ing El­liott. What he didn’t know ini­tially was that she was suf­fer­ing from pan­cre­atic can­cer.

El­liott struck up a re­la­tion­ship with Franklin’s niece who told him of her ill­ness, and in­vited him to at­tend her funeral. Af­ter the singer’s pass­ing, her fam­ily agreed to see the film and gave El­liott their bless­ing.

“When I found out she was sick, she was no longer this beam­ing god­dess of mu­sic. She was a hu­man be­ing with frailty,” he says. “It was very im­por­tant for me to be re­spect­ful of some­one who was go­ing through that sit­u­a­tion. It was very mean­ing­ful to get the fam­ily on board.”

Choos­ing to treat the film like a time cap­sule, and avoid­ing the tra­di­tional for­mula of in­ter­weav­ing in­ter­views with con­cert footage, El­liott aimed to create an in­ti­mate con­cert ex­pe­ri­ence for cin­ema-go­ers.

“It’s the art­form of mak­ing that record with that band at that time which re­ally ap­pealed to me,” he says.

“That abil­ity to be in that room and to watch that artistry and not be sucked in by some­thing else, it’s al­most like a cell­phone-proof movie.

“It’s a great af­fir­ma­tion to bring joy in a world that needs it, I think, right now. As they say in the church world, this is bring­ing the good news. This is the good news that Aretha sang. There were too many co­in­ci­dences that have gone on with the mak­ing of the movie to make me think it isn’t built for this spe­cific time.”

Amaz­ing Grace opens on Thurs­day.

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