Amazing Grace (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Amazing indeed

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“Amazing Grace”, a music documentary film which was shot by Sydney Pollack in 1972 but then had been kept in vault for more than 40 years due to not only technical problems but also legal issues, is amazing indeed. Even though you have no particular background knowledge on Aretha Franklin and R&B or gospel music like me, you will soon appreciate what an extraordinary singer Franklin was, and you may also find yourself swaying along with the spirited excitement generated by Franklin and others around her on the screen.

At the beginning, we see people gathering at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA during the evening of January 13th, 1972. Around that time, Franklin reached to the height of her career with a series of famous R&B hit songs such as “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, and she decided to take a forward step into gospel music, which was incidentally the main musical background of her early years when she grew up under her father Reverend C. L. Franklin. Accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir and Reverend James Cleveland, she performed in front of a bunch of audiences at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on January 13th and 14th, and the live recording of this two-day performance of hers was later turned into her 1972 album “Amazing Grace”.

In the meantime, she and her album producers also collaborated with Warner Brothers for making a concert film based on this two-day performance of hers. Pollack, who was still establishing his filmmaking career around that time, was hired to film the whole recording process with five 16mm film cameras, and he and his crew members came to shoot no less than 20 hours of footage, but there was one big unfortunate problem. Due to his inexperience with making music documentary films, he happened to shoot without clapper boards snapping shut at the beginning of each take to help synchronize sound and picture in post-production, and, once it seemed that there was not any possible way to salvage the project before the release of Franklin’s album, Warner Brothers decided to abort the production while shelving the footage in its vault.

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Since that regrettable happening, Pollack had often tried to solve the technical problems of the film and then release it during next 35 years, but he did not have enough time for that as often busy with making or producing other films, and he eventually handed it to producer Alan Elliott before his death in 2007. Elliott subsequently completed its post-production, but then, alas, he came across another problem due to a legal dispute with Franklin herself, who did not allow the film to be released until her recent death in last year.

In the end, the film was released in New York City during last November after Franklin’s family gave a permission for that and later released worldwide early in this year, and I can assure you that it is one of the most memorable music documentary films I have ever watched during last several years. Although it surely often looks rather plain and grainy in terms of technical aspects, it goes without saying that Franklin shines whenever she holds the center of the screen, and you may wonder why the hell she refused to have the film released in public, because, as far as I can see, there is nothing she would be ashamed of in the film.

I must confess that I only remember her for her cameo appearance in “The Blue Brothers” (1980), but Franklin left a considerable impression on me nonetheless when I watched that film in 1994, and “Amazing Grace” certainly showed me more of her authentic talent and star quality. Although the beginning of the first day of the performance feels rather modest at first, it does not take much time for her to grab my attention with the opening song, and then everything goes smoothly for her and her accompanying musicians and singers, while the audiences enthusiastically go along with that.

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At the end of the first day of the performance, everything culminates to that famous gospel song known well to many of you. It is really wonderful to watch Franklin singing all the way for delivering the mood and spirit of the song, and, like those audiences in the film, we cannot help but be swept by what is palpably conveyed by her powerful singing voice.

This is surely the highpoint of the film, but, as Reverend Cleveland promises at the end of first day of the performance, the second day gives us more fun and excitement. Again, Franklin excites and enraptures her audiences, and the documentary amuses us a bit as spotting Mick Jagger and Charile Watts in the audiences, who were incidentally finishing their latest album in LA around that time. When Franklin’s father, who was invited along with Clara Ward, gives a summon around the end of the performance, the mood becomes a bit serious, but he delivers the summon with spirit and some sense of humor, and that is soon followed by the final song, which is performed with sheer gusto and abandon by Franklin and her singers and musicians.

On the whole, “Amazing Grace” provides us a vivid, exciting glimpse on one of Franklin’s many career highlights, and it is certainly worthwhile to watch even if you are not that familiar with Franklin and her career. Now I am considering checking out that album of hers, and you may have the same thought once you watch this excellent documentary.

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