Review: Amazing Grace

Directors: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack

Stars: Aretha Franklin, Reverend James Cleveland, Clara Ward

In Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining there is a scene in which Scatman Crothers’ hotel employee Dick Halloran talks to young Danny Torrance about his incredible psychic gift. In order to put it into words that the boy can understand, he likens it to the smell of burnt toast. The toast may be gone, but an element of it remains. A lingering.

Rooms and furniture, inanimate objects; to greater or lesser degrees we imprint on them parts of ourselves. With a flicker of imagination we assign them ‘character’. Who’s to say that some imprint of ourselves doesn’t remain in these objects, these places? An echo of us, like the negative of a photograph. I’m often guilty of such whimsy; alone I might talk to the walls of a room as if they were listening. Could listen. I suppose its similar to how other people talk to God. Another form of human projection.

This remarkably assembled film of an incredible two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972 made me think on these things. As I watched it, I looked at the piano seat Aretha Franklin sits at. At the pulpit where she sings. At the features of that room. The clothes of the people there. And I wondered if all of these inanimate things hold within them some resonance, some memory of the events of those nights. Some shining.

This film is an act of miraculous salvage. Filmed by Sydney Pollack for Warner Bros., the footage was shelved due to technical issues in syncing up sound and image. It has taken some 46 years and the intervention of many (including Spike Lee, acting here as producer) to bring it all together. The result joins the ranks of the great concert films (the second in as many months to do so from an immensely influential black woman). It appears now like a time capsule, not just of Aretha Franklin and her powerful, nuanced, humbling voice, but of a time, a place, a mood and a feeling.

The two nights allowed Franklin the opportunity to create live recordings for a gospel album, taking herself back to her roots, deliberately captured before a congregation and inside a church in order to better communicate the sensation of gospel music. The resulting album became the biggest selling of its kind. This document of those evenings captures the brilliance of Franklin in performing, but it also holds more than that. More than the album can really show.

Pollack’s cameras roam with a looseness. It doesn’t matter that they catch one another, or if a person crosses the shot, or even if an operator’s hand briefly obscures the frame. Indeed, the inclusion of such incidents – along with an abridged stall during Night Two due to technical difficulties – only adds to the ambiance of the film; the immediacy. What’s being recreated here is the sense of A Happening. An event.

Many of the most electric moments here are spent in the company of the audience (those glorious afros! the fashions!). 1972 was the peak of blaxploitation cinema, which in part celebrated black culture. But here are the real black people of Los Angeles, multi-dimensional in their arrested responses to the music. Sure, Mick Jagger lounges in the background on Night Two, but the pride and exaltation on the faces of the black men and women are far and away the more emotionally stirring. See too the members of the Southern California Community Choir. When Franklin demolishes the titular song at the end of Night One, there’s a frisson in the air. The backing singers praise their lead. They shout out their support as she sings. You get the sense that if anyone were to object, a riot might break out. Which is not to say that the evening is pregnant with violence; more simply that the air is overwhelmingly passionate.

Amazing Grace simmers at first, soars, then simmers, soars again. That’s the structure of those two short nights. Playing host, Reverend James Cleveland is a large, charismatic presence, though he never dares upstage his star. He couldn’t if he tried. The film rises when Aretha rises, and through gorgeous grain you get to see her putting her all into her gift; her face haloed in tears and sweat. At one point her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, climbs up to the piano and mops her brow while she sings. Franklin doesn’t even register that he’s there. She is in it.

Then it is gone, done. With gracious thanks. Disappeared like smoke with credits rolling. Only an echo of it remaining, like the smell of burnt toast in a room. What’s magical here is how Amazing Grace captures the immediacy of live music. That these are religious songs doesn’t matter a jot. The energy transcends faith. Thanks to the work performed here we have the privilege of reliving those sensations. Soon you’ll be able to watch Amazing Grace whenever you want if you’re so inclined. But watching it in a cinema felt special. Not like being there. I can’t imagine anything feels like being there. But as close as we’ll get.

I recommend you get as close as you can, too.

Score: 

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