Amazing Grace sells itself: a film, long unreleased because of technical issues, that documents two live Aretha Franklin performances (at the height of her fame) in a Baptist church in Los Angeles, the audio of which became her live gospel album. If that description doesn’t set your heart racing, check your pulse. As for me, I’d watch that film even if it were recorded on grainy film stock by a five-year-old who only shot people’s feet. Thankfully the film – not credited to any director, but originally under the guidance of Sydney Pollack, best known for Tootsie – takes a much smarter approach, capturing the raw energy of the room through active camerawork. Because of this, Amazing Grace is a must-see concert film, one that speaks to the lasting power of the African-American spiritual tradition.
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Aretha Franklin grew up rooted in Gospel music, and the style formed a core of her own musical expression. So, even as she reached the peak of her mainstream success with a string of number one hits (most famously, of course, “Respect”), she felt a pull to return to her roots and record a Gospel album. For this, she enlisted not only her backing band, but the services of James Cleveland, director of a preeminent Gospel choir, and an old family friend. Though Franklin remains the prime focus of the film, then, Amazing Grace becomes a communal affair, with Cleveland, the choir, and the audience itself receiving ample attention (I found myself especially drawn to the assistant choir director, the improbably named Alexander Hamilton, who leads the singers with unflagging enthusiasm).
Shots of the audience, especially, serve to convey the energy of the room. Pollack and his crew mimic this energy in their filmmaking style. Primarily handheld, the cameras roam around restlessly, using quick zooms to suddenly focus on small moments, and odd angles (like a high angle shot from below the piano as Franklin plays) to give a dynamic feeling to the performances. The camera operators have a knack for picking out the right audience member to highlight at a given moment, be it a pair of dancing women getting into the spirit, or Mick Jagger (really) shuffling along the back of the sanctuary.
On one level, it’s possible to appreciate just the surface of Amazing Grace, to take it as an energetic, powerful concert film capturing one of the great American musicians in her prime. There’s a lot worth thinking about on a deeper level, though, in a film that spotlights the intersection of religion, pop culture, and race during a time of great change in American history. I don’t have the space to ruminate on these matters in this short review, but I do think to take the film as merely a great aesthetic object misses the serious undercurrents. For my part, I won’t soon forget the image of James Cleveland, listening to Aretha Franklin sing “Amazing Grace,” doubled over, almost in pain, carried away in the Spirit.