by Toby Woollaston
Archival footage documentaries are knocking it out of the park at the moment. And if last week’s release, the technically dazzling Apollo 11, literally took you to the moon and back, then Amazing Grace metaphorically does the same with a cinematically enthralling and spiritually charged presentation of a titanic talent.
In 1972 Aretha Franklin returned to her roots and graced the microphone laden pulpit of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles to record her iconic gospel album, Amazing Grace. Standing beneath a giant mural of Jesus Christ (looking every inch a Californian surfer-dude) and backed by the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin belts out an array of gospel songs to an enraptured congregation—the footage of which is almost an other-worldly experience to take in.
The late great director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) was tasked with the job of recording the show for later release. Unfortunately, it became an incomplete project, and while Franklin’s recorded album went on the be the biggest selling gospel album of all time, Pollack’s footage was separated from its soundtrack and lay dormant in the vaults for decades.
Thankfully, director Alan Elliott has taken the reins of Pollack’s wandering horse and lead it back to water. And drink deeply from the spiritual well this final film does. Raw and shambolic in appearance, the film’s imperfections only serve to enrich and highlight Franklin’s jaw-dropping vocals. It captures a sense of dignity and authenticity to her performance that peaks at the film’s titular centrepiece—a sweaty, focussed and transcendent rendition of Amazing Grace that is tearfully received by both the congregation and backing performers alike.
Pollack clearly looks like someone who has found the winning lottery ticket as he joyously, but frantically, gestures his crew to point their camera to this once-in-a-life-time performance and then off stage to an audience that can no longer contain themselves (Mick Jagger included). It’s impossible not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, and if this film doesn’t move you then you might want to check your pulse.
See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.
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