Aretha’s death may lead to concert film’s release
Aretha’s death may finally lead to the release of the world’s most sought-after concert film
For nearly half a century, documentary footage of a signature performance by Aretha Franklin has stayed locked in the vault, stuck in legal limbo.
Now the wait could be coming to an end.
Franklin died Aug. 16 at age 76 after a long battle with cancer. Her death could set into motion a series of events that finally makes the film available to the public.
The movie, Amazing Grace, documents Franklin’s pair of performances for the live double album of the same name recorded in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
As of 2017, the double album stands as the biggest-selling disc of Franklin’s entire 50-year recording career, as well as the highest-selling live gospel music album ever. It won Franklin the 1973 Grammy Award for best soul Gospel performance.
Shot by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack, the documentary of that recording session had been mired in technical and legal limbo for years, until former record producer and UCLA professor Alan Elliott completed it over a seven-year period after Pollack’s 2008 death and prepared to show it at the 2015 Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
But just hours before it was to screen at Telluride, Franklin successfully blocked the screening of the film, winning an injunction in Colorado against the festival. In the wake of the injunction, the documentary was shown to industry buyers at the Toronto International Film Festival and was briefly part of TIFF promotional materials in 2015, but it was never screened for the public. To this day it has not been released or seen.
Her death has now raised the possibility the film could be shaken loose via an agreement with Franklin’s family. A person familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified out of sensitivity to the singer’s recent death said there will be new negotiations that could result in an agreement, and possibly even a deal with a distributor to release the film this Oscar season.
After the injunction, Lionsgate agreed to acquire the film for nearly $3 million. Franklin was promised $1 million, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who did not want to be identified because of the closed-door nature of discussions, but she declined to sign any contracts. The deal fell apart, and the movie’s rights reverted to Elliott.
Owing to a legal dispute with Elliott and the director’s estate, Pollack is no longer credited as the director.
A 2018 release of Amazing Grace would potentially serve as a tribute to the late singer. The film, which this reporter saw in 2015, has a majestic but informal sweep, serving as both a soaring concert film and a document of the singer’s early talent. The effect is heightened because the show is set entirely in a church.
Backed by a gospel choir, Franklin puts a religious spin on such 20th-century pop classics as Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy and Carole King ’s You’ve Got A Friend.
Franklin’s objections to the film’s release during her life were unclear. Telluride director Julie Huntsinger said at the time of the injunction that the musician had no reason to dislike the movie.
“It’s a beautiful film,” Huntsinger said. “She looks great in it. She should be proud of it.”
Franklin was known for her wariness of legal agreements and any payments not made directly to her in cash. In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, the magazine’s editor David Remnick described the payment process for one performance:
“On the counter in front of her, next to her makeup mirror and hairbrush, were small stacks of hundred-dollar bills. She collects on the spot or she does not sing. The cash goes into her handbag and the handbag either stays with her security team or goes out onstage and resides, within eyeshot, on the piano.”
He quotes a Franklin friend, the media personality Tavis Smiley, as saying that it “It’s the era she grew up in — she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B.B. King, get ripped off. There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”
At her death, Franklin left no will or trust. Her four sons have filed with probate court listing themselves as interested parties in her estate. So it’s not clear how the rights to the film might be resolved.
Reached by The Washington Post, Elliott sent along a statement: “Ms. Franklin said ‘I love the film.’ Unfortunately for all of us, she passed before we could share that love. Amazing Grace is a testament to the timelessness of Ms. Franklin’s devotion to music and God. Her artistry, her genius and her spirit are present in every note and every frame of the film. We look forward to sharing the film with the world soon.”
Executives at Telluride and TIFF would not comment. Franklin’s chief spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Quinn, has not responded to a request for comment.
The consumer appetite for Amazing Grace was quickly on display Just hours after Franklin’s death, many entertainment publications were writing odes to the audio of the performance and the event’s larger atmosphere.
“For all the historic moments that she helped soundtrack and elevate over the span of decades, it was the pair of concerts delivered at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972 that rank as her finest hours,” the magazine Billboard wrote of Franklin.
Of her performance of the title track, it said:
“For 11 full minutes she lives in a state of grace, as she sings to the Lord, for the Lord, letting his light and his love fill her body and soul, and then sending it pouring out into the microphone placed inches from her face and into the ears of the people sat rapt before her in the pews, and those listening months later at home or in their car, for all eternity.”
Worshippers pray at a service for Aretha Franklin at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church days after her death. Franklin recorded her bestselling album there in 1972.
Aretha Franklin recorded the album and documentary Amazing Grace in 1972. The doc has been mired in legal limbo ever since, but the album, left, was the biggest-selling album of Franklin’s career and won her a 1973 Grammy Award.