The sweat beading on Aretha Franklin’s brow caught the light and kept it, each drop of perspiration as brilliant as the rhinestones on her ivory caftan. Mick Jagger, uncharacteristically quiet with the air of a sheepish student, hung back in the last few rows of the congregation before eventually making his way closer to the action. The Reverend James Cleveland, the evening’s master of ceremonies, stumbled over to a pew and folded his husky frame in half, the curve of his back rising and falling with every sob as Franklin scaled yet another cloud-brushing note in the climax of a hymn.
When you listen through Amazing Grace — Franklin’s 1972 gospel double album that would go on to become her best-selling LP, with more than 2 million copies sold to date — you hear her excellence and the subsequent, unanimous approval of every person present at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church for those two nights that January. You just don’t see the moments the mics didn’t pick up, which illustrate how deeply moving it was to be in the room that night. Amazing Grace, the Sydney Pollack-directed documentary that provides the visual foil to Franklin’s album, offers an additional testament to the soul-shaking gospel according to Aretha: to hear it is to believe it, but to see it in action is to understand why fans have long since accepted Amazing Grace as a sacred text on its own.
It’s all the more precious considering how audiences never saw this footage — of a glowing Franklin, a dumbstruck Jagger, an overwhelmed Cleveland, the jubilant Southern California Community Choir and more — in its complete, ecstatic form until now. On Monday night (Nov. 12) at the DOC NYC Film Festival, Amazing Grace made its official debut after its producers spent years navigating a legal labyrinth and its subsequent dead ends. Pollack had initially failed to sync the visuals with the audio from the recording, which made the editing of the film a massive undertaking for producer Alan Elliott once he acquired the rights from the director in 2007. (Pollack died in 2008.) Once Elliott did succeed in reconstructing the film, Franklin and her legal team blocked him from showing it in 2011, and again in 2016 when he attempted to bring it to film festivals. Her argument: that the film is effectively a Franklin concert on celluloid, and that she needs to approve of every showing of it because of that.
Following her death in August, Elliott told Billboard that he was hopeful that Pollack’s effort to capture the energy and enigma at work during the Amazing Grace sessions would finally get pulled off the shelf. “Ms. Franklin said, ‘I love the film,’” he explained. “Unfortunately for all of us, she passed before we could share that love. Amazing Grace is a testament to the timelessness of Ms. Franklin’s devotion to music and God. Her artistry, her genius and her spirit are present in every note and every frame of the film. We look forward to sharing the film with the world soon.”
They did — three months after the publication of that update, nearly to the day — and the long-awaited premiere of Amazing Grace at DOC NYC was given a reception so appropriately euphoric that it involved an invocation from none other than Reverend Al Sharpton. The Civil Rights activist and spiritual leader used to greet the attendees of Franklin’s birthday dinners ever year, which he noted before blessing the documentary and leading the room in a brief prayer: “You gave us a queen, and that queen never forgot it was you who gave her that crown.”
Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, and Elliott also offered introductory remarks, as did producer Tirrell D. Whittley, who acknowledged the mythic reputation of the film. He also encouraged those gathered to match the applause of the on-screen audience: “This is not the kind of screening where I’m gonna tell you to be quiet.”
The DOC NYC congregation proceeded to raise their hands and voices and sang along with Franklin, Cleveland and the choir throughout the film. Amazing Grace is, itself, an invocation, a conjuring of her memory and the roots of her artistry. Born into the church as the daughter of Baptist preacher Reverend C.L. Franklin (who takes the pulpit on the second night at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church), Aretha’s musical foundation was built on gospel, the shape of her vowels and heights of her range strengthened and vaulted by scripture.
Pollack’s crew trains their lenses on this, and focus on the fervent crowd as they take in her sermon and respond accordingly. For every triumphant verse of Franklin’s, we see the tearful fits of unbridled joy she inspires; for every moment of silence, we see how Franklin measures it as she prepares to draw breathe, lay her fingers on the waiting piano keys or listen to the custodian of the mic, be it her father or Cleveland. Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings features many of these orations in its extended track list, but they’re one-dimensional, in that Cleveland’s knowing smiles and Franklin’s intensely furrowed brow don’t inform that experience. Onscreen, Amazing Grace establishes this peak as the highest in Franklin’s artistic topography.
Before we even enter the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, the film lists off all she’d achieved at the time of filming — a handful of Grammys, numerous hits dotting the Top 40, 18 studio albums to her name — to stress how rare it was for a star of her stature to perform in such an intimate space. Amazing Grace is a rare artifact that takes a great thing and makes it better, the missing chapter we didn’t even know we were missing in Franklin’s legend.