A homecoming for the Queen of Soul

At 4 Columns, film critic Melissa Anderson writes about the release of Amazing Grace, a “long-delayed” documentary concert film chronicling two widely revered 1972-era Aretha Franklin performances that comprise a live album of the same name. From Anderson:

All the emotions of the world: that’s one way to characterize what is evoked while watching Amazing Grace, the long-delayed documentary of Aretha Franklin’s two performances, on January 13 and 14, 1972, of (mostly) gospel standards at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Those live recordings were assembled as the double album Amazing Grace, still the highest-selling disc of Aretha’s career and the most successful live gospel record of all time. Released in June ’72, roughly midway through Aretha’s 1967–79 tenure at Atlantic Records, the label where she reached her artistic and commercial apogee, the album was billed as a homecoming of sorts for the Queen of Soul, returning to the music she sang as a child as a star attraction at her father’s sermons in Detroit and beyond.

To document these two extraordinary nights, Jerry Wexler, Aretha’s longtime producer at Atlantic, arranged for director Sydney Pollack to film the performances; Warner Bros., the parent company of Atlantic, had planned to release the movie, rather incongruously, on a double bill with Super Fly in the summer of ’72. But Pollack didn’t synch sound and image properly, so the project languished for decades. With the blessing of Pollack (who died in 2008), Alan Elliott, a former associate of Wexler’s, oversaw the completion of the documentary, which was originally set to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2015—until legal action by Aretha scuttled those plans.

Elliott heard about the decades-old film when he was an Atlantic Records employee in 1990, and nearly bankrupted himself over the years to “buy the existing footage, edit the film, and pay for insurance and lawyers” in order to stave off Franklin’s legal efforts to prevent Amazing Grace from seeing theatrical release.

“The reasons why Aretha, notoriously litigious, didn’t want audiences to see Amazing Grace—which shows her, then twenty-nine, fully in ‘the zone,’ performing perhaps her most beautiful, transporting music—will forever remain unknown,” writes Anderson at 4 Columns.

Amazing Grace is at Film Forum this week in New York City and will head to theaters in 2019.