VOD film review: Amazing Grace
James R | On 07, Feb 2020
Director: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack
Cast: Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton
Watch Amazing Grace online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
From Taylor Swift to Justin Bieber, anybody who’s anybody in the music business has got a concert movie on their CV. Evolving from the 1970s glut of the genre, where off-stage drama was almost more important than on-stage alchemy, today’s entries transport fans to arenas around the world, blending gigs with behind-the-scenes documentary insights and talking head commentaries – at once valuable cultural artefacts and smart commercial tools.
Aretha Franklin, though, almost didn’t get her concert movie at all. Amazing Grace was filmed in 1972 over two nights in front of a live audience, capturing the iconic singer in full flow. Sydney Pollack, the man who gave us Out of Africa, Tootsie and Three Days of the Condor, was at the helm. But even with their joint star power, the movie never happened; a lack of clapperboards and other issues meant that the sound and video tracks couldn’t be synchronised successfully. Decades after, Alan Elliott supervised the matching up of the two using digital technology, only for legal complications regarding the rights to her images scuppered the release further. Now, almost 50 years later, Amazing Grace has arrived on our screens. It’s a testament to how astonishing Aretha Franklin’s musical gifts were that the answer is a resounding yes.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Pollack’s movie is a jaw-droppingly intimate and a striking contrast to the kind of music films we’re used to seeing. The 16mm footage, captured on multiple cameras, doesn’t see Franklin strutting on a massive stage, but rather captures her singing in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir, she’s understated, simply dressed, and doesn’t even talk to the congregation that have packed out the pews.
Not that she needs words. She communicates every manner of emotion through her vibrant, all-encompassing, powerhouse of a singing voice. She belts out songs from her Amazing Grace album, including Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting at the piano, always radiantly tuned in to the gospel groove. James Cleveland, the pastor, introduces her, while Franklin’s father, a reverend, says a few words, but this is Aretha’s show and she’s thrilling to see in full flow. Quietly seated at the piano, briefly ascending to the pulpit for the titular track, it’s a flawless rendition of the church songs from her youth, performed with reverence and awe – and inspiring both in equal measure.
Incredibly, she’s calm and collected the whole time, never losing her cool or playing to the crowd, and Pollack’s perfectly placed cameras get us right up close to sense for ourselves how personal each track is. The result is one of the concert movies you’ll ever see, and an invaluable snapshot of the most successful gospel album of all time. It’s no wonder it sold so many copies: this is electrifying stuff.
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