Amazing Grace. How Sweet Her Sound.
I went to see Amazing Grace last weekend (May 4). It has taken me this long to write this post, because I needed to sit with my thoughts in order to do justice to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. And I’ll probably fall short, so let me do the best I can at this moment in time.
First, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a straight-up, unadulterated, and unabashed Aretha Franklin fan. I love me some Queen of Soul! I’ve waited 47 years, since the album was released and the film was first announced, to actually see this movie.
I’m sure you know the history by now, but if not, I’ll quickly run it down. Ms. Franklin wanted to do a live gospel album and enlisted the help of her long-time friend, Rev. James Cleveland and his group, the Southern California Community Choir. The album, Amazing Grace, was recorded over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The album was released in June 1972 and became the best selling gospel album of all time.
A young filmmaker, Sydney Pollack, recorded the concert for future release by Warner Brothers. However, he neglected to use clapperboards to sync the audio and video, and Ms. Franklin would not approve the release of the film in this condition. The raw footage sat in the Warner vault until purchased by Alan Elliott, who was able to use technology to sync the sound with the film. However, Ms. Franklin, now facing her own mortality, refused to release the film in her lifetime. After her passing in August 2018, the family reviewed the film and agreed to release the movie.
It. Was. Worth. The. Wait.
Let me give you the next revelation: from the very beginning, she snatches you bald, puts her foot on the gas, and doesn’t stop until you are a drained, stunned, and teary - maybe even crying - mess.
The film opens with an ascendant Ms. Franklin sitting at the piano accompanying herself while singing the Marvin Gaye classic, Wholy Holy. Although Ms. Franklin’s musicianship has always taken a back seat to her glorious voice, make no mistake, she was an excellent pianist. But that’s not the important part of this paragraph.
An ascendant Ms. Franklin. Her star was still climbing. She hadn’t reached the peak of her artistry in 1972. She still had new trails left to blaze. Have mercy.
Her voice is so transcendent, her playing so crisp and assured, the choir is so in awe of her gifts yet vocally on point, that I can happily imagine the audience had goose bumps and knew they were going to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Such is the power of the artistry of Ms. Franklin that Spike Lee came on board to help produce the final film. And while she couldn’t come to terms with the release of this film during her life, it serves as a fitting tribute and epitaph to the one, and only, Queen of Soul.
Rest well, my Queen.
And I need you to hear Wholy Holy, not the album version, but the film version.
Thanks for stopping by.