Aretha Franklin bustled down the aisle of New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in her white dress and then slid behind a piano — an instant reminder of her formidable piano skills — for Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”
Behind her, the Rev. James Cleveland led the Southern California Community Choir, clad in sparkly silver vests that contrasted the bland, beige surroundings of the movie-theater-turned-church in Los Angeles. The group swayed and sang, awash in the miraculous sounds coming from a 29-year-old Franklin.
For 46 years, devotees of the soul-gospel-pop icon wondered if they would ever see “Amazing Grace,” the visual accompaniment to Franklin’s 2 million-plus selling album of the same name (and still considered the biggest selling live gospel album of all time).
The footage was filmed over two days in January 1972 by a documentary crew led by director Sydney Pollack (before he was the Sydney Pollack of “The Way We Were,” “Out of Africa” and “Tootsie” renown). But technical issues plagued the video — Pollack didn’t properly synchronize the images and sound — and for decades, Franklin prevented its release.
Prior to his death in 2008, Pollack bestowed producer Alan Elliott the rights to buy the negative from Warner Brothers and finish the film. Technological advancements allowed him to correct the sound-sync issues, but Franklin stubbornly continued to impede its public debut, even suing Elliott in 2011 and halting premieres of “Amazing Grace” in 2015 and 2016 for reasons she never articulated.
What that indicates about Franklin as an artist, said Atlanta-based Tirrell D. Whittley, another producer of the film, is Franklin’s drive for perfectionism.
“She looks for excellence in everything she does, and she wanted excellence from this film, and when it was captured in 1972, there were some elements that weren’t excellent,” Whittley said at an Atlanta screening of “Amazing Grace,” which is playing in metro theaters now. “You can see it in the film — she’s hunting for perfection. You could feel it in her look. It’s in her eye.”
Despite Franklin’s years of protestation about the film’s release, she viewed “Amazing Grace” long before her death last summer. In 2015, she told the Detroit Free Press, “I love the film itself.” Following Franklin’s August passing at the age of 76, her family gave Elliott permission to release the documentary.
“After 46 years, you just get over it,” Whittley said. “I think for a while she was over it, and for us, it was a gem to find this and bring it forward. I just hate that she didn’t get to participate in this (promotion) part of the process.”
Franklin might not be physically present to represent the visual complement to her seminal album, but watching “Amazing Grace” is an immediate transport into the soul of her music. In many ways, viewing Franklin at her peak — the clarity of her voice is simply stunning — enhances the emotional effect of her death.
While Pollack’s grave technical mistake will forever be blamed for the film’s much-belated arrival, it is important to recognize that brilliance of what he captured over those two performances: the wobbly close-ups of the small crowd packing the church; the zooms into the sweat, beaded on Franklin’s brow and trickling down her neck and the tear sitting under her eye as she sang a mashup of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; the shots of the choir — and the ever-entertaining Cleveland — jumping up to shout affirmations as Franklin stood, left arm crossed behind her back, to unleash “Amazing Grace”; the capture of the engrossed faces of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, and later, Jagger standing in the back and clapping along to “Climbing Higher Mountains”; the image of Franklin’s father, C.L. Franklin, blotting the sweat from his daughter’s forehead.
The sounds of “Amazing Grace” are sweet, no doubt. But the sights are equally engrossing.
Starring Aretha Franklin, C.L. Franklin and Bernard Pretty Purdie. Unrated. At metro theaters. 1 hour, 27 minutes.
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