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.


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