“AMAZING GRACE” — 3½ stars — Aretha Franklin, Rev. James Cleveland, C.L. Franklin; G; Broadway; running time: 89 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — For fans of gospel music, R&B and good documentaries, “Amazing Grace” is a musical gift just in time for Easter.
Assembled from footage shot for an abandoned concert film, Alan Elliott’s “Amazing Grace” captures the late Aretha Franklin at her Queen of Soul peak, recording the 1972 live double-album of the same title.
The setting is the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a chapel in Los Angeles where Franklin brought her band to join the Rev. James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir for a two-day recording session. Director Sydney Pollack was brought on to capture the event on film, which was performed before a live audience to capture the atmosphere of a service.
Unlike most documentaries, “Amazing Grace” sticks exclusively with its raw footage, and skips the usual narrator and talking head interviews, opting instead for brief introductory titles that explain how "Amazing Grace" was a return to Franklin’s gospel roots after several years of R&B hits like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools.” Those roots are made abundantly clear in the performance itself, as well as an insightful address late in the film from Franklin’s minister father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin.
On the first night, Franklin appears in an angelic white gown, backed by the choir, and mostly stands behind the church pulpit to deliver gospel standards like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and, in a performance so intense that Cleveland has to visibly step aside and compose himself, the popular standard “Amazing Grace.”
For the most part, Franklin remains quiet and serene between songs and lets Cleveland play master of ceremonies. Everyone returns for the second night and a whole new set of songs, including the foot-stomping “Old Landmark,” which might be familiar to anyone who remembers James Brown’s performance in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers.”
For the musical performances alone, “Amazing Grace” is a precious gem, easily worthy of standing next to other classic concert films of the era like those made for George Harrison’s "Concert for Bangladesh," Joe Cocker’s "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour or Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.” It’s also valuable as a recovered project, like the Rolling Stones’ 1968 “Rock and Roll Circus,” and Stones fans will even spot Mick Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts in Franklin’s audience.Comment on this story
At the same time, “Amazing Grace” goes beyond a mere song-by-song track list, including various outtakes and odd angled shots that let the audience behind the scenes of the production for more of a warts-and-all product. We see Franklin stop and restart a performance of “Climbing Higher Mountains,” we see the late Pollack directing his cameramen in the background and in one amusing shot, we see someone from the choir lob a handkerchief in Franklin’s direction, only to miss and hit the camera instead.
Altogether, “Amazing Grace” is a must-see with a little something for everybody. Elliott’s film isn’t slick, or even particularly fast-paced in spite of its short running time, and it doesn’t feature the songs you’re used to hearing on the radio either. But Elliott's completion of Pollack's project is a cherished time capsule, and a timely tribute to the late Lady Soul.
Rating explained: “Amazing Grace” is rated G and is appropriate for all audiences.