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Review: Amazing Grace (2019)

Amazing Grace (2019)

Directed by: Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack

Premise: A documentary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance with the Southern California Community Choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

What Works: Amazing Grace is a concert film and a historical artifact and it has value in both respects. The documentary is distinct from many other concert films. A lot of these kinds of movies are staged in big auditoriums with slick production values, capturing the showmanship of the stage show as well as the vivacity of a live musical performance. By comparison, Amazing Grace is raw and stripped down. The event is a recording session first and a concert second; the audio recording of this performance was released in 1972 and it became the biggest selling album of Aretha Franklin’s career and the bestselling live gospel music album of all time. The performance was staged at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles which was a modest and relatively small setting. This footage is quite rough; Amazing Grace was shot with handheld cameras in a cramped space and the church interior is apparently lit with the building’s florescent lights. As a result, this film has a vivid visual feel. Amazing Grace captures the performers and the audience in the throes of spiritual passion and that’s not always pretty but it is authentic and in that respect, this documentary captures something about Aretha Franklin and about musical performances in general that elude a more polished production. Amazing Grace documents the link between musical performance and spiritual ecstasy. Although Franklin is on the stage for the bulk of the movie, a lot of this footage cuts away to the choir and the audience and the way they are affected by the music. As a result, this film is a testament to the power of Franklin’s gospel music and it neatly visualizes how viscerally Franklin’s performance impacted her audience. 

What Doesn’t: Amazing Grace had a long and torturous road to the screen. The footage was shot in 1972 but then languished in Warner Bros.’ vaults for decades. When it was finally assembled, public screenings were obstructed by lawsuits filed by Aretha Franklin who tried to keep the film out of circulation for unknown reasons. (It was only after Franklin’s death in 2018 that the matter was settled and the film was finally set for release.) Aside from a bit of text at the start of the film, none of this is addressed in Amazing Grace even though the behind-the-scenes turmoil is at least as interesting as the content of the documentary itself. This is a concert film and it is extraordinary as a document of particular time and place and of a legendary musician at the height of her artistry. But without any kind of framing or testimony, Amazing Grace doesn’t offer much perspective on these events nor does it put them in context.

Bottom Line: Amazing Grace is a unique music documentary. It is antithetical to the way in which we usually think about a concert film but Amazing Grace’s rawness gives the movie an honesty and impact that is in keeping with the power and passion of the music.

Episode: #748 (May 5, 2019)