A needed reminder of what we can be like at our most human, anyone feeling despondent about the state of the world should rush to see ‘Amazing Grace,’
If we had to cram as much of human history as possible into a small, indestructible crate, so that a future species might better understand us, I may insist that room be made for ‘Amazing Grace,’ – the film even more so than the album. The best-selling gospel record of all time, ‘Amazing Grace’ was recorded by Aretha Franklin and the Los Angeles Community Choir in 1972, over the course of two nights, at the New Bethel Baptist Church in LA. Both nights were filmed, with a live audience, by none other than Sydney Pollack (whose lack of experience putting music to film is part of the reason the project gathered such dust before it returned to us). Learning that footage like this sat on a shelf somewhere in the caverns of Warner Bros. Studios for nearly 35 years can’t help but make you wonder what else is currently sitting lonely in a locked closet somewhere – an abandoned Kubrik? Some of Frida Kahlo’s early sketches of herself? Walt Disney’s frozen head?
Conspiracies aside, ‘Amazing Grace’ really does feel like something precious that we didn’t know we were missing until someone put in the work to get it to us. (That person is Allan Elliot, bequeathed the project by Pollack in 2007 before he died.) At just under 90 minutes, I struggle to think of any use of archival footage that suspends time this effectively, that is so sublime and yet so unabashedly real.
Introduced by Reverend James Cleveland, Franklin takes the stage in near silence, and remains in that place for almost the whole film. Aside, of course, for the singing. And the singing is rapturous, awe-inspiring, but in a very different way than it is on any album. What sticks out so much in ‘Amazing Grace’ is, frankly, the sweat: Pollack’s cameras are not shy about zooming forward until the frame only holds part of the performer’s faces, and we get cheeks and noses and foreheads dripping with perspiration only partway into the second song of the evening.
Part of that is surely the heat from studio lights we can catch glimpses of, in-between pews. But the exertion we witness, not only from Franklin but from the Reverend and choir too, gives the majesty of the gospel music a pitch that feels at once both more God-given and more humanistic. Adding to the human aspect is the technical side of recording a live album: to laughs, the Reverend reminds the audience at opening that if the spirit moves anyone to vent “Amen!”, and they wind up having to roll the music back for another take, they should feel obliged to let the spirit move them into venting “Amen!” yet again. Because it is an album recording, and not an official concert, there are starts-and-stops that very well may have broken the flow of any other performance, but we don’t feel it. Instead, the gradual slides in and out of hymns become a part of the experience in a way only possible when a room full of people are all committed to the same process, and when that process is a search for something outside of themselves.
Even the sometimes-awkward footage is entirely a part of that sensation. At one point, we see a cameraman dart across the church hall, back hunched, to get behind Franklin & Cleveland. When we cut to his feed, he’s struck magic : the two of them grasping each other’s arms behind their backs, as they sing.
There are dozens of moments like this, as a cavalcade of empowering voices carries us through the hall – see Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, take out his handkerchief and boldly blot the sweat from his daughter’s face as she sits at the piano. Or Clara Ward, who so inspired Aretha’s career, sitting in the front row of pews, after having recently suffered her 2nd stroke. At one point she seems to cause a sincere commotion in the middle of a hymn as she stands up, moved by something, confused or concerned or experiencing something far sadder, perhaps. (Clara Ward would pass away a year later, at 48; Franklin and Reverend Cleveland sang at her funeral.) These profoundly human and complicated moments go unremarked upon by the people who film them. They just occur, in the midst of some of the most glorious sounds we’ve ever managed to produce.
That there is such constant, unplanned beauty in a room of rehearsed performers and untrained strangers trying to make something very technically precise is what makes ‘Amazing Grace’ so uplifting. Because it doesn’t just happen once – the album is recorded over two nights, and the second half of the film is no less astonishing than the first. In the end, what the sweat and the strangeness and the majesty all amount to is an empowering sense that great feeling, and great meaning, can be somehow replicated, even if it can’t be tamed. That with enough passion and support and work, Grace – the kind you’ll find mention of in a church – can be created, and can be shared. Go see ‘Amazing Grace,’ and take anyone and everyone with you.