If its producers have their way, the Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace will become even more amazing in the future.
With the long-delayed documentary of the late Queen of Soul’s recording of her Grammy Award-winning 1972 Amazing Grace gospel album rolling into wide release next month, plans are already afoot to expand the project for a home video release. “There’s going to be some great specials,” co-producer Tirrell D. Whittley promised Billboard on Monday night — what would have been Franklin’s 77th birthday — during a premiere screening at the Detroit Film Theatre in her hometown. “There’s some great special clips. There’s some songs that aren’t in the movie. There’s 20 hours of footage; Everything couldn’t be packed into 87 minutes.”
Alan Elliott, the producer who finished the film the late Sydney Pollack shot during Franklin’s two concerts at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Jan. 13-14, 1972, struck a more reserved tone but made it clear there’s an intent for people to see more of what transpired at the event, which yielded the best-selling gospel album of all time. “Every day there is something business-wise now that people have caught the holy spirit,” Elliott said. “All we do all day is try to fight off people at my heels. But we will get out there and there will be DVDs.”
And more, in fact. The Detroit screening is kicking off an Amazing Grace tour during which the producers — Elliott, Whittley and Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens — will be accompanied by Dr. Bishop William J. Barber II, who eulogized Franklin at her funeral last August and will speak before a planned set of screenings. The film will return to New Temple Missionary on March 31, with screenings also scheduled for the Martin Luther King Museum in Atlanta, the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Ala., at the Stellar Awards and the NAACP Image Awards and for the Black Congressional Caucus in Washington, D.C. Longtime Franklin executive producer Clive Davis and the Rev. Al Sharpton are hosting an April 2 screening in New York City, while other stops are planned around the country — including summer amphitheaters such as the Hollywood Bowl “so people can enjoy it in a communal setting,” according to Elliott.
“It’s a eulogy to her life, the movie,” noted Elliott, a former Atlantic Records staffer who was brought into the project 29 years ago by Amazing Grace album co-producer Jerry Wexler and was able to show it to Franklin before she passed away. “It allows those of us now to experience and have that sense of seeing Aretha at the height of her heights, in the holiest of holies.”
Monday’s Detroit screening was a de facto party for Franklin, who was known for lavish birthday celebrations when she was alive. Family members — including sons Clarence, Edward and Kel — and friends, including Motown great and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Martha Reeves and boxing champion Thomas Hearns, gathered for an early black-tie reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History before attending the screening, and then held an afterglow in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“If she were here she would’ve had a grand party with a beautiful cake and flowers, and everybody would have been dressed up like we are tonight,” sister-in-law Earline Franklin said. She noted that though Franklin resisted Amazing Grace’s release for most of her life, she would have been happy with the finished version. “They had a little negotiation, but who doesn’t negotiate,” Earline Franklin said. “If you don’t negotiate, you don’t get what you want. I’m just so excited that it finally got out of the can and is getting into movie theaters so everyone can see it.”
Producer Whittley declared Detroit “ground zero” for Amazing Grace’s success. “This is where it started,” he noted. “We’re going to have to win Detroit if we’re going to win anywhere else.” He encouraged those at the film to share their impressions via social media and generate the same kind of word-of-mouth excitement that staked Jordan Peele’s new horror film Us to a $71 million opening weekend.
Barber, meanwhile, primed the crowd for a special experience. “Tonight we don’t welcome you to the theater — we welcome you to the freedom church!” he bellowed. “Come on to church, y’all, church that points us all to something higher…where you can be free, where you can sing ’til the power of the lord comes down.” He also led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Franklin after the screening.
And that power was certainly felt by Elliott, who labored so long to bring Amazing Grace to the screen. “It’s very emotional. To have her birthday, to have Rev. Barber here, to be in her hometown with her family, to be her with the movie, to premiere the movie…there’s no real import, right,” he said with a laugh.