Recently unearthed 1972 concert film leaves hometown audience in awe

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It wasn’t a movie. It was church. 

The Aretha Franklin documentary “Amazing Grace” celebrated its Detroit premiere on Monday before a rapturous VIP crowd at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The theater, packed with Detroit notables and members of Franklin's family, broke into spontaneous applause throughout the film, a long-lost chronicle of Franklin's 1972 concert inside Los Angeles' New Bethel Baptist Church. 

The crowd whooped and hollered like it was watching the Queen of Soul sing live in front of them. And the movie is such an organic documentation of Franklin's performance that it felt like she was there on stage singing, and the theater was transformed into her congregation.  

Martha Reeves said she had tears in her eyes the entire time she watched the film.

"This movie is a revelation," said Reeves, who said it reminded her of growing up with Franklin. (They were just one year apart.) 

"It was raw. It was fresh. It was pure and it was rich. It was like looking at an X-ray of Aretha," Reeves said. 

Judge Craig Strong said the film took him back in time, especially seeing Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, on the big screen. 

"It gave me goosebumps," Strong said. "I hope other people see it and enjoy it as much as I just did." 

Roxane Whitter said the film showed that Franklin was more than a singer. "She was a preacher, and she preached through song," Whitter said. She said she felt "emotionally fulfilled" watching the movie. "Aretha speaks to your heart," she said. 

Monday's premiere was "the holiest of holies," said the film's director Alan Elliott, since the screening was the first in Franklin's hometown and it was held on what would have been her 77th birthday. (Following the credits, Rev. William J. Barber II led the crowd in a singalong of "Happy Birthday" to Franklin.) 

Elliott, who assembled the movie from the pieces left behind when it was abandoned after shooting, was thrilled with the film's reception, especially the way the Detroit audience caught on to the humor of the film, such as the moment when the Rev. James Cleveland tosses a towel directly at one of the cameramen on the crew. 

"There's a no-nonsense humor to it," said Elliott, who said the crowd's reaction to those moments was rewarding. "It's a really great crowd. It's why we wanted to be here," he said.  

Prior to the film, Elliott, producer Tirrell D. Whittley and Franklin's niece, Sabrina V. Owens, introduced the film and brought Barber to the stage, who spoke passionately of Franklin and her role in the culture. 

"Her singing brought power to the depressed," Barber said. "She sang in our key, and taught the world how to hear it." 

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Producer Tirrell D. Whittley on Aretha Franklin documentary "Amazing Grace" during the premiere in Detroit on March 25, 2019. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Barber said the film is universal in its appeal. 

"Whatever you believe, 'Amazing Grace' is for you," he said. "We don't welcome you to the theater, we welcome you to the Freedom Church."

"Amazing Grace" opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 5, and hits theaters nationwide, including Detroit, on April 19.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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