SXSW Film Review: Amazing Grace

Two nights with the incomparable Aretha Franklin

Words fail anyone attempting to describe the singing of Aretha Franklin, a standard this writer won’t be exceeding today. Buy the album Amazing Grace – buy all the albums – and now watch the film (in wide release next month) and wonder at what we gained, and what we have lost.

Filmed by director Sydney Pollack over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January of 1972, Amazing Grace records the 29-year-old Aretha at the height of her musical powers and in a dramatic return to her gospel roots (the resulting album, part live and part studio, would become the biggest selling gospel record of all time). Backed by Rev. James Cleveland, a small band, and the extraordinary Southern California Community Choir, Aretha delivers a stunning, inspirational performance, moving both the choir and the audience to paroxysms of joy and celebration. Pollack’s camerawork and direction are also excellent, featuring close-ups of the players and the audience that catch the emotion and amplify the rhythms of the music.

The film, long delayed by both technical problems and Aretha’s characteristic intransigence, received a brief bicoastal release late last year. SXSW Film Festival Director Janet Pierson told the Paramount audience, “You can read all about that elsewhere. I’m here to watch the film with you.” We owe her thanks for bringing its indeed amazing grace to SXSW as an inspirational close to the week’s wide range of films, especially the music documentaries.

One of those was The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, in which the legendary singer recalls his mother hearing her teenage son’s suddenly bass-deep voice and telling him, “The hand of God is on you. Don’t waste that gift.” In Amazing Grace, Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, recalls his daughter’s childhood and immediately apparent talent: “The gift of her voice … is something hard to describe.”

More simply, Cleveland, who serves as emcee and accompanist, says Aretha deserves every honorary title she has been given and introduces her later as “The First Lady of Music.”

“She can sing anything,” Cleveland declares. “Three Blind Mice …” Then he reminds the audience that the event (despite the numerous cameras and other film equipment) is in part a religious service, and invites them all to “get in the spirit … and the sound of the gospel.” When Aretha sounds the first notes of “Wholly Holy,” it is as though the heavens themselves have opened, and the spirit is indeed everywhere.

The standards are here: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “How I Got Over,” “Precious Memories,” and of course, “Amazing Grace,” the emotional climax of the first night and thus a difficult moment for the film to follow. In addition to the Marvin Gaye opening (“Wholly Holy”), there’s a surprising melding of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

There is much improvisation and interplay between singer, accompanist, and choir (energetically directed by Alexander Hamilton), and Pollack does his best to capture all that complex action. It’s not a big church, maybe a couple of hundred people – mostly African-American, less so the second night (when there’s also a glimpse of Mick Jagger). Transcendence is in the air, and everyone seems aware that this is a very, very special occasion.

Devoted fans of the album (and they are myriad) may be slightly surprised to learn that the concert doesn’t closely track it – that’s just as well, as the pleasures of this aural and visual performance are somewhat different from those on record, and not a whit disappointing. The second night falls off a bit from the first in intensity – hard to do otherwise – and there are too damn many cameras. But there’s also a spontaneity that night that has its own rewards, and no one who loves Aretha or soul music or gospel will be disappointed.

When the film does indeed hit Austin (or your town) when it goes on wide release on April 5, don’t let it pass you by. Among the truly transcendent geniuses in American music, the late Aretha Franklin is surely high in the pantheon, and this concert delivers her in all her glory.

Amazing Grace

24 Beats Per Second

Saturday, March 16, 4pm, Paramount

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SXSW 2019, SXSW Film 2019, Amazing Grace, Aretha Franklin, Sydney Pollack

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