When Aretha Franklin sang “Amazing Grace” inside Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Jan. 13, 1972, Rev. James Cleveland was so overcome with emotion he left the piano bench, took a seat and planted his head in his hands.
Now that the footage of the event has finally – finally – been released as the movie of the same name, it’s easy to see and hear why. Resplendent in a white dress and standing in the pulpit, the 29-year-old Franklin spends 10 minutes singing the spiritual with minimal musical accompaniment and grabbing the mic for support as she loses herself in the song.
If there is a god, he, she or it must’ve been pleased. And anyone – believer or not – who sees it and doesn’t have some sort of visceral response (for me, it was tightness in the throat; my companion gasped audibly) is likely already dead.
Filmed by director Sydney Pollack over two nights during recording sessions for what became the best-selling gospel album of all time, also titled Amazing Grace, the movie sat unused for nearly five decades because of technical issues and Franklin’s objections before being resurrected just after the Queen of Soul’s death and released in theaters just before Easter.
Cleveland calls Franklin “the First Lady of Music.” And that’s probably an apter name as Franklin proves she’s as much a gospel singer as a soul queen.
Backed by Cleveland; her band, which includes guitarist Cornell Dupree, drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Chuck Rainey; and the Southern California Community Choir under the direction of the infectiously effusive Rev. Alexander Hamilton, Franklin sings her way through contemporary numbers such as Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and traditional spirituals including “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Climbing Higher Mountains.”
Chatter about the specialness of this event must’ve gotten out, because by the second night the church was much fuller and the audience included Clara Ward, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts and Rev. C.L. Franklin, who flew in from Detroit and proudly wiped the sweat from his daughter’s face as she sat at a piano singing absolutely soul-stirring rendition of “Never Grow Old.”
The film is a visual as well as audio treasure – a time machine to ’72 with big Afros, colorful clothing and lots of mustaches seen in the audience and among the performers. Dressed in black with silver sequins, the choir sat behind the star and exalted in Franklin’s religious fervor. Meanwhile, audience members looked to the sky in praise and danced with abandon as the magnificent power of the human voice gave life to the supernatural.
Franklin barely speaks during the 90-minute film and backstage preparations are minimal in the finished product. But it doesn’t matter and the producers were wise to let the music do the preaching.
It’s a sin it took so long for
“Amazing Grace” to emerge. But the second coming of Franklin’s 1972 live album
was worth the wait.