MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Amazing Grace is an amazing film in many ways and one that took over 45 years to see the light of day. Back in 1972 Aretha Franklin (31 years old at the time) had enough success and hit singles to pitch a different project. She would return to the gospel songs of her past (her father was the renowned Rev. C. L. Franklin from Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church) and record them live in a church setting. The venue would be New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. She would be accompanied by Rev. James Cleveland, considered the King of Gospel Music (and former choir director of her father’s church before moving to California) and the Southern California Community Choir. This combination would produce the double album “Amazing Grace” which would become the largest-selling live gospel record of all time (selling over 2 million copies).
The recording session was filmed by noted director Sydney Pollack to be aired as a television special but a technical glitch had the audio out of synch with the video. Although technology would eventually be created to fix this problem, Pollack’s death in 2008 and legal red tape created more delays until finally producer Alan Elliot managed to put together a 90-minute film that is now ours to enjoy.
And what a treat it is to see a young Aretha and a still-vibrant James Cleveland join their voices in praise. It’s hard to imagine the freedom that they had in designing this event. On the first night of the recording, Rev. Cleveland tells the gathered audience that this is going to be church and that they had better be ready to respond accordingly. Then the music starts and it is something to experience, including such classics as “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, “The Old Landmark” and a fantastic mash-up of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand / You’ve Got a Friend”. It’s clear at this point that the song length is being adjusted and the music was rehearsed to adapt to the limitations of a side of an LP vinyl record.
But then comes the second night of the 2-day recording process. Aretha’s father is present and the Holy Spirit is given full reign. Rev. Franklin preaches a few words and the choir (under the spirited direction of Alexander Hamilton) grows stronger in reply to Aretha. Songs begin to open up, with simple call and response repetitions progressing to abundant praise and emotion. Tears roll down, hands are raised, and clapping is accompanied with folks catching the Holy Ghost and having to be restrained. It is no longer just a recording session but church.
It would have been great to experience this film in a packed auditorium (my matinee showing had a total of 8, including me and my wife). Take advantage of the opportunity and head to your neighborhood theater now.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A celebration of music, creativity and faith.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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