Amazing Grace, 2018.
Directed by Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott.
Featuring Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland.
A documentary recorded at the 1972 taping of the titular Aretha Franklin album – the highest selling live gospel release of all time.
Aretha Franklin has one of the most goosebump-inducing voices in the history of music. That much is more or less an accepted fact. Amazing Grace is a film that essentially features that once in a generation voice without much else going on, and it’s more than enough to sustain a movie.
And the story behind this particular movie is a fascinating one. In 1972, Warner Bros recruited acclaimed director Sydney Pollack to shoot documentary footage of Franklin’s live recording of the Amazing Grace album over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. Due to difficulties with synchronising the picture and audio, the film was never released and Franklin would later take legal action to block attempts by producer Alan Elliott to release the movie after he bought the footage in the noughties. Elliott did, however, reach an agreement with Franklin’s family after her death August 2018, which has brought the movie to screens.
If ever a movie had the ability to evoke the raucous, celebratory intimacy of a church choir performance, Amazing Grace is that film. With the charismatic Reverend James Cleveland serving as master of ceremonies, as well as joining Franklin on several of the tracks, there’s a real sense of joy that permeates the proceedings. The decision to record the album in its natural environment is a masterstroke that pays off, elevating the music and the singers to a higher level.
With that said, Amazing Grace – like just about every other concert film ever made – is an odd experience to watch in a cinema. I recognise this is a problem with me, rather than the movie, but the notion of simply watching a concert on the big screen is not one that has ever particularly appealed to me. This is doubly true with gospel music, which relies on the power of the voice in question, rather than any production, staging or spectacular performance. Franklin’s vocals are magical, but the transition to film doesn’t enhance her performance in any way.
In short, your enjoyment of Amazing Grace rather comes down to your affection for Franklin and for gospel music in general. Fans will be absolutely spellbound by Franklin’s obvious ability and the simple power of the music and her talent is undeniable even to those who lack the same affection for these classic songs. It’s great that this material is finally seeing the light of the day, but it’s inessential viewing for all but the most ardent of fans.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.