Graham: 'Amazing Grace' a towering testament to Aretha

The long-buried concert film is a tremendously powerful tribute to Aretha Franklin

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Aretha Franklin in "Amazing Grace."

For close to 50 years, Aretha Franklin's "Amazing Grace" concert film was a buried treasure. Now that it's finally being unearthed, it can simply be considered a treasure. 

The 1972 documentary, which premieres at New York's DOC NYC festival on Monday, is an extraordinary celebration of life, music, and the gospel according to Aretha. Filmed over two nights during Aretha's legendary performances at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January '72, the film has been lost, nearly destroyed and tied up in legal wrangling for decades. That it's at long last being seen now is both a joy and a tragedy: just months after the death of the Queen of Soul, it stands as a towering testament to her extraordinary gifts, but it's a shame Aretha isn't around to see it be released and received like the classic that it is.

The performance itself has long been considered Aretha's finest hour, the jewel in her Queen of Soul crown. Released as a live album just months after it was recorded, it sold more than 2 million copies, and became the best-selling album of her career. It reaffirmed her gospel roots: After knocking out eight albums in four years for Atlantic Records — "Young, Gifted and Black" was released less than two weeks after the performance — "Amazing Grace" was her way of reconnecting with the church music on which she was raised.

It came as her first marriage was hitting the skids, and all of that strife and stress, both personal and professional, is imbued into Aretha's vocals, which arrive as if delivered from on high. The power of her performance has never been in doubt. But seeing Aretha — just two months shy of her 30th birthday — perform these hymns, and watching others react to her, finally completes the puzzle. It's the difference between hearing the call of a World Series-winning home run and watching it with your own eyes. Seeing truly is believing.

The documentary is straightforward: Aside from some setup early on, it's just the performance. No behind-the-scenes footage, no talking head interviews, no narration. (Aretha herself barely speaks, save for a few asides.) In this case, nothing extra is needed, and it would only serve to distract from the performance around which the film is built. 

We see director Sydney Pollack — because of the work done to the film following Pollack's 2008 death, the film is being released without a director's credit — and his camera crew setting up their equipment, and we see the crew in the backgrounds of shots throughout the film. They add another dimension to the performance: Whether they're kneeling on the floor in front of Aretha, standing up on chairs and ladders behind her or canvassing the crowd, their presence adds to the raw feeling of the film.

Cameras catch Mick Jagger, standing up in a pew near the back of the church, and Aretha's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who takes a seat in the front row. When Franklin addresses the congregation, bragging about his daughter — "I say with pride that Aretha is not only my daughter, Aretha is just a stone singer," he says — Aretha's eyes light up with pride. It's clear he's her hero, and vice versa. 

The Southern California Community Choir, sporting sparkling silver vests and seated behind Aretha, are invaluable in their supporting roles, especially their animated reactions during Aretha's performance of "Amazing Grace" itself. 

But the star of the show, clearly, is Aretha. Eyes clenched, perspiration dripping down her neck, channeling something deeply spiritual from way down in her soul, she's giving her all, an otherworldly singer captured in her element. She stands with confidence at the microphone, no flailing arm movements, all poise. She's accompanied by the Rev. James Cleveland, who introduces her by telling the crowd, "many of you who've never had the opportunity to hear Aretha sing gospel, you're in for a great thrill." He's not kidding. And with this film, old fans and new converts alike can experience this once-in-a-lifetime concert in a way that's long overdue.  

Amazing, indeed.

Twitter: @grahamorama