Review: Amazing Grace (2018/19)

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Heart and Soul: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks/Al’s Records And Tapes

This might be stating the obvious but Aretha Franklin had a voice that made you sit up and take notice. I don’t think I’d ever watched extended footage of her singing live. AMAZING GRACE, the salvaged footage of an abandoned concert movie is a fine old re-introduction to the Queen of Soul.

In 1972, at the height of her fame, Aretha Franklin performed two shows on consecutive nights at a Baptist church in Los Angeles. These performances were filmed but die to a combination of technical problems and Franklin’s own demands the footage never saw the light of day, until now.

Watching Franklin’s clearly nervy start to this unique and very intimate show blossom into a controlled powerhouse performance as the music, the faith and the passion take over is spine-tingling stuff. Her performance stands on its own but seeing her audience, and some of her band and the choir backing her completely overcome with wave after wave of emotion seals the deal.

If it wasn’t Aretha Franklin we’re talking about, you might think the host of this low-key, and yet massive event, one Reverend James Cleveland, would steal the show. He’s just such a magnetic presence, pure charisma and divine showmanship. But after Aretha gets over some early show jitters, there’s no eclipsing her. Reverend Cleveland himself, surely the draw to much of his congregation every Sunday has to take a moment to collect himself when the Queen of Soul reaches transcendence in her gospel delivery.

Playing amateur psychologist, I think Aretha and her dad both loved God more than each other, and it got in the way of their relationship. The mood definitely changes when Reverend Franklin is called down to speak and you can see Aretha retreating back into herself. Thankfully that doesn’t last long and before long she’s belting out gospel once more.

I know a lot of the footage wouldn’t have been usable even after restoration and the Franklin estate had a hand in the edit, but I’d have liked to have seen more outtakes in and amongst this wonderful concert recording. There’s this great moment that cuts between a rehearsal with a diva-ish Aretha and her live performance on the same number and a few more of these would have helped round it out as a film.

Speaking of the estate’s involvement, I am grateful they wanted the grandkids and the world to see Aretha at the height of her powers at such a unique event. I do still think it’s slightly disingenuous to claim in the opening title card that it was just technical problems that prevented the film’s release before this year. It was also about how much Aretha was paid and whether it would open doors for her in Hollywood as well.

It’s the little candid moments that add the essential human texture to the experience. We see members of the audience overcome and carried to another plane by Aretha Franklin, who catch themselves going over-the-top on camera then carry on doing what they’re doing because they’re that happy and fulfilled in that moment. Mick Jagger’s there too, looking very out of place.

Amazing Grace doesn’t have the variety of voices to make it a compelling documentary and the quality of footage and filming is a bit patchy. But as a record of a remarkable concert, a time capsule of 1972 and even as an argument for the beauty of faith and art in relation to it, it works wonderfully. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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