Jacob Richardson | 31/08/2019
A wasted opportunity, that will only hold interest for the few.
In 1972, director Sydney Pollack filmed Aretha Franklin performing with the Southern California Community Choir. Filmed at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, the two night concert focussed not so much on Aretha’s biggest hits, but instead on classic gospel music. An electrified crowd stands around Warner Bros cameras, clapping and singing along (including Mick Jagger, innocuously enjoying the performance along with the rest of them).
While it was filmed in 1972, a technical error kept it out of the limelight for 47 years. The production team didn’t use clapperboards during the filming, so Warner Bros wrote the footage off, claiming there was no way to sync the audio and the visual. Decades later, producer Alan Elliot bought the footage and worked for years to sync up that raw footage. Following completion of the picture, he then faced legal battle after legal battle with Aretha Franklin herself, who filed emergency injunctions to stop screenings at a range of festivals. After her death, her family approved the release of the movie, and thus we have a 47 year old concert movie hitting Australian screens this week.
You’ll spend a lot of Amazing Grace questioning whether this 47 year battle was even worth it. It cannot be emphasised enough that this film is solely a documentary style recording of her performance over those two nights. There is a brief speech, delivered to the congregated masses of that church, from her father, and one intriguing mashup of rehearsal and in-concert footage for a single song, but outside of that we don’t get any of the hallmark trappings of an immersive and intriguing documentary. There is little to no behind the scenes footage, no interviews with key players, no interviews with audience members, and no narration or context provided to ground this concert in the scope of Aretha’s career.
The footage is undeniably gorgeous, and gives you a distinct emotional sense of the time. The lighting in particular throws long light leaks across these 1970’s era lenses, and one commends Pollack and the rest of the creative team at the time for the forethought in setting the mise-en-scene of this film in such a way. For the film lover or filmmaker, the use of footage also showcases a little bit of behind the scenes movie magic, with cameramen, grips and more running around the set in behind the main action.
There are certainly things to love, and Aretha’s voice never fails to disappoint. Her incredible range is, at times, the one ray of light to grab onto in this film, and it becomes too easy to close your eyes and just let her dulcet tones wash over you. But at the end of the day, this film feels like a wasted opportunity for a feature film. Indeed, you get the distinct feeling that paying customers for this movie would feel cheated out of their hard earned money walking out of the theatre. In the end, this feels like footage better placed on Youtube, Vimeo or Netflix than shown on the big screen.
After 47 years of troubled production, one hoped for more from Amazing Grace. Save this one for when it inevitably hits Netflix.