Decades later, Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace' premieres in Detroit

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News
Aretha Franklin in "Amazing Grace."

When it comes to handling Aretha Franklin’s estate, her niece Sabrina Garrett Owens has some powerful role models.

“I’ve been lucky to have very strong women in my life, from my grandmother to my mother, to Aretha,” said Owens, the daughter of Aretha’s older sister, Erma Franklin. “Watching and modeling them has helped to shape who I am today. It’s the only way to get what you want and what you need.”

Owens, 60, was able to settle with producers last year to bring the legendary documentary film “Amazing Grace” out after almost 50 years on the shelf. The film, shot in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, shows a luminous, 29-year-old Aretha singing with such gospel fervor that the soundtrack album became her best-selling album ever.

 Tonight, “Amazing Grace” will be screened in Aretha’s hometown on what would be her 77th birthday, at an invitation-only screening at the Detroit Film Theatre inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. The film will open in theaters locally April 19.

“Amazing Grace,” directed by Sydney Pollack, wasn’t released in 1972 because of a technical problem with the sound. Producer Alan Elliott acquired the rights to the film in 2007 and sorted that out, but a more formidable hurdle was negotiating with the Queen of Soul.

The woman whose steely confidence allowed her to step in, unrehearsed, to sing opera at the 1998 Grammys; who dropped her mink to the stage at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors and made President Barack Obama cry, wasn’t going to back down for any producer.

Negotiations fell apart. Elliott tried to screen the film at the Telluride Film Festival in 2015, but Aretha’s lawyers shut it down.

After her aunt’s Aug. 16 death, as estate representative, Owens decided to try again.

“I’d seen the film originally about three years ago, and really liked it,” Owens said. “I talked to Aretha, and she really liked it. So her stopping the film at the Telluride Film festival had nothing to do with whether she liked the film or not. It was just that contract negotiations fell apart. That wasn’t an issue for me. Other family members saw it, and we all felt that this needed to go out to the world.”

Did the skills Owens honed as a labor negotiator help her come to terms on this and other estate matters more easily?

“I don’t know about easily, that’s not quite the word,” Owens said, laughing. “It can be a little challenging. I do have a pretty important job here at the university, and when I’m at work, I like to focus on work. So I have to fit (estate business) around my mornings, my lunch hour, my evenings, my weekends, to make it all work.”

Owens, whose style, slim frame and close-cropped hair are an update of her mother, speaks crisply and exudes an organized confidence. She is determined to keep Aretha’s legacy a part of the culture.

 “It’s like a little Energizer bunny, you just do what you have to do, you just buckle down,” she said. “And we have a great team of people who help me make all this work.

“We’ve accomplished quite a bit over these six months. Moved (Aretha’s) things out of her apartment, stored away some of them, and we paid quite a bit in taxes. We’re looking at other projects. Things have been very busy. It’s a learning curve, but we’re making it work.”

Among the Aretha projects coming this year is “The Queen Next Door,” a lavish book of more than 150 photos by Detroit photojournalist Linda Solomon, to be published by Painted Turtle/Wayne State Press in September.

In this Nov. 7, 2017 file photo, Aretha Franklin attends the Elton John AIDS Foundation's 25th Anniversary Gala in New York.

Owens, who has known Solomon for some 20 years, wrote the afterword for the book.

Solomon shot Aretha extensively in the 1980s, often for her column in The Detroit News, and some of those photos appear in the book.

But most of the photos have never been published, including candids of Aretha relaxing with family and friends, at parties or backstage. It also includes examples of invitations to parties that Aretha would write out and address by hand.

Solomon was fortunate to meet and became friendly with the Queen of Soul at a time – the 1980s – when the singer, fearful of air travel, was sticking close to home.  

“She brought the music industry back to Detroit in the '80s, because she didn’t travel,” Solomon said. “She would have producers coming here, and did her recording, music videos and major projects here in those years.”

In her afterword, Owens mentions that Solomon was trusted by the family because she wasn’t intrusive while shooting parties or private events, and took a minimum of shots.

A major plus for Solomon is that there were no cellphones or Instagram in that era, so most of her photographs of Aretha have never been seen.  

Aretha never asked Solomon for photo approval of any of her images. And Aretha often allowed Solomon to photograph her without makeup.

Thus, the photographer is irritated by the criticism TV gossip host Wendy Williams lobbed at “Amazing Grace” last week, complaining about Aretha’s fresh-face and “black is beautiful” Afro in the film because the Queen of Soul was into “showgirl glamour” and “done eyelashes.”

 “Aretha didn’t need to have her makeup on,” the photographer said. “She was a natural woman. Yes, she could be regal, but that natural woman part of her is very important. I like the fact that the ‘Amazing Grace’ film is showing her in the most natural way. In my book, I have four different segments where she’s wearing no makeup. That was Aretha. And it takes her away from the superficial, diva thing.”

Wesley Morris of the New York Times wrote of “Amazing Grace”: “You get both the most lovely gaze a professional camera’s ever laid upon Aretha Franklin, and some of the mightiest singing she’s ever laid on you.”

Ah, but what does he know. Williams wants eyelashes.

The look of “Amazing Grace,” including the period fashion and hairstyles, is one of the things Sabrina Owens likes most about it, “in addition to Aretha’s magnificent singing,” she said.

 “I liked looking at the '70s fashion,” said Owens, who was 14 in 1972. “The hairstyles and the shoes, because it takes you back to a moment of time when you were younger, freer, less stressed, and everything was just so cool – the big rocking Afros, the colorful clothing. Aretha is younger, she was at the pinnacle of her career and yet very, very shy.”

Aretha doesn’t talk much in the film, although it’s touching to see her face light up when she spots her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, in the audience.

“She didn’t talk a lot, she just asked for water at one point, and made a comment when they were doing something on the floor with the chords,” Owens said. “She was there to sing — and she did that.”

Susan Whitall is a longtime Detroit music journalist and author. She can be reached at