In 1972, when Aretha Franklin was already hailed Queen of Soul worldwide, she decided to record a concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, the same hall where she used to sing as a young girl. Accompanied by Rev James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, Aretha performed a selection of popular hymns over two nights, to an absolutely thrilled audience. The album of that concert became the best-selling gospel record of all time. The event was filmed by Sydney Pollack and his crew, but due to a technical glitch the recording could not be released. Only now, 47 years later, was the video successfully restored, which is great news for all.
The recording is not only important for its musical value, which in fact transcends sound and truly seems to enter a spiritual realm, but with the passing of time the film has also become a fascinating historical document, offering an insight into a strong community at a significant point in American history. Cleveland explains that Franklin insisted on recording it there, as opposed to a recording studio, because she wanted the participation of the worshippers.
What initially seems like a low key, unassuming event gradually becomes a heartfelt, intimate exchange. With every song there is a crescendo of feeling fed by the choir and the audience, whose cheers of approval, ecstatic clapping and tears create something soulful. Franklin’s vocal mastery requires no introduction, but Amazing Grace shines a light on her personality, too, which comes through the big screen in spite of her reservedness. Humble and introverted, she barely addresses the audience, but virtually steps aside and lets her voice carry everyone along, almost in reverence to the collective goal of creating beauty together. She becomes a medium through which magic happens, and by not claiming any more limelight than will naturally shine on her, the singer allows the congregation the chance and room to partake in the powerful energy she stirs up.
At a time when music idols incited rebellion to rules and turned away from values absorbed during their upbringing, Aretha Franklin goes back to her roots and reaffirms the beliefs she grew up with. On the second night of the event, her father, a prominent preacher himself, attends the concert and makes a touching speech about his daughter’s unchanged relationship with music and the church from the days she performed in their living room, aged six.
Amazing Grace offers a genuine portrayal of gospel as experienced on a spiritual level, without the glitz that Hollywood is wont to attach to it. Much more than a filmed concert, Amazing Grace takes one right into the room where Aretha stood and moved people to tears. A must-see for anyone who appreciates music and its inestimable power.
Amazing Grace is released in select cinemas on 10th May 2019.
Watch the trailer for Amazing Grace here: