It all begins with a frame of reverence: The concert film “Amazing Grace,” capturing Aretha Franklin’s live recording of a gospel album of the same name at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, opens with footage of the site, superimposed with text explaining what you are about to see. What you are about to see is 46 years in the making, a film project started by the late director Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa”) and realized by music producer and composer Alan Elliott. But neither the filmmakers nor their opening exposition are self-important; combined with the footage, they construct a sense of expectancy. They know what we are all waiting for — or, rather, whom.
When you go to see “Amazing Grace,” as I hope many of you will, you may enter as a fan of Franklin, a fan of Gospel, a practicing Baptist, a cinephile. You may be all or none of the above. But as soon as you see Franklin process into that church, radiant in her sequined white gown suggestive of both a lovely femininity and an intangible heavenliness, you’ll realize see isn’t the right word. Instead, you’re simply a witness.
And what do you stand to witness? A once-in-a-lifetime performance, minimally tampered with. The only perceptible mark Elliott leaves is his smart, episodic arrangement of the songs Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir perform, each one highlighting a different aspect of Franklin, the performance and its live witnesses. This strategy, though subtle, only heightens the impact of the already impactful musical experience. One of the episodes that stands out takes place a few songs in, when the camera ventures out into the pews and lingers on a young female parishioner. At first, she just sways, under Franklin’s inevitable spell. But, when she realizes the camera is on her, she breaks character and laughs. It feels like we have a moment with her, and we somehow travel back to 1972 and share in the grace of joy.
Unsurprisingly, the sequence during which Franklin performs a life-giving rendition of “Amazing Grace,” is the most memorable of these song-episodes. In it, Elliott carefully interweaves footage of Gospel legend and musical collaborator for the recording session Reverend Dr. James Cleveland’s visceral reaction to it. Having been a jokemaker, pseudo-emceeing the performance, and a spokesperson for Franklin thus far, Elliott highlights how even the reverend cannot help but feel humbled and overcome completely by Franklin’s might.
Elliott’s episodic arrangements are subtle and bare. You may crave more of these artful interventions, like I did. But, at the same time, Elliott errs on the side of laissez-faire direction, and all for the better, because in turn, Franklin rightly takes the wheel. And in the long, unbroken sequences that stretch like Franklin’s vocals to accommodate seemingly impossible notes, it is easy to get lost. It is easy to let your mind wander to other beautiful, impossible things. For me, it was my late grandfather. The film sent me to a place where I could remember loving someone, allow myself to miss them and trust that they’re somewhere, somehow. For my mother, it was her own late mother. That is one thing “Amazing Grace” trasmits: its own otherworldly power.
So when you exit the theater, you’ll have witnessed something extraordinary. Some of you will crave more of Franklin’s music. Some, like me, will long to be part of a community like that. To experience something transcendent like that. No matter who you are, though, it will go something like this: You’ll remember something Franklin sang — take “‘Tis a land where we never grow old,” as an example. You’ll remember believing her.
Even as you leave, you’ll carry that with you, a small charm — an amazing grace — in your pocket.