Aretha Franklin in a scene from the documentary movie Amazing Grace. Supplied by Studiocanal.
Aretha Franklin in a scene from the documentary movie Amazing Grace. Supplied by Studiocanal.

Amazing Grace brings us back into room with Queen of Soul

Luckily for music lovers, when Aretha Franklin stepped into New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972 to record Amazing Grace, cameras were there to capture the incredible live performance.

But luck wasn't on the side of director Sydney Pollack, who had been hired by Warner Bros to make a documentary about the making of the album - which went on to become the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time.

His film crew didn't use clappers, so they were unable to sync the vision and sound.

"It was a simple mistake,” says filmmaker Alan Elliott. "Back in the olden days when they started making talking pictures, they used to have a clapper board to sync the audio to the video. Why they didn't bring one I don't know, but that's what they did.”

When Elliott heard about the shelved, never-before-seen footage, he knew he had to bring it back to life. What he didn't realise was it would turn into a 30-year project full of technical and legal hurdles.

"At the time it seemed like a good idea, but if you take the totality of all the time and energy and you'd told me when I started that it would be this then I would have said 'I don't know if I'm going to sign up for that',” he says. "But there never came a time where I said 'Oh well, this will never happen'. It just felt like this is a setback but we'll get through it.”

Using the latest in digital technology to fix up the botched documentary turned out to be one of the most straightforward aspects of the project.

"With digital technology, you have the ability to put it into a computer and have 2000 pieces of film as opposed to hanging them like you did in '73,” Elliott says. "Back then they had to hang it with a paper clip on a fishing line and sync it to a tape to be able to systematically go through it.

Alan Elliott is the co-director and producer of the documentary movie Amazing Grace. Supplied by Studiocanal.
Alan Elliott is the co-director and producer of the documentary movie Amazing Grace. Supplied by Studiocanal.

"For the editing we used deliberately long takes so you can feel like you're in the room and you will get swallowed up in that moment.”

The other reason why the film is only just getting released in 2019 is because Franklin herself blocked its release by suing Elliott. What he didn't know initially was that she was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

Elliott struck up a relationship with Franklin's niece who told him of her illness, and invited him to attend her funeral. After the singer's passing, her family agreed to see the film and gave Elliott their blessing.

"When I found out she was sick, she was no longer this beaming goddess of music. She was a human being with frailty,” he says. "It was very important for me to be respectful of someone who was going through that situation. It was very meaningful to get the family on board.”

Choosing to treat the film like a time capsule, and avoiding the traditional formula of interweaving interviews with concert footage, Elliott aimed to create an intimate concert experience for cinema-goers.

"It's the artform of making that record with that band at that time which really appealed to me,” he says.

"That ability to be in that room and to watch that artistry and not be sucked in by something else, it's almost like a cellphone-proof movie.

"It's a great affirmation to bring joy in a world that needs it, I think, right now. As they say in the church world, this is bringing the good news. This is the good news that Aretha sang. There were too many coincidences that have gone on with the making of the movie to make me think it isn't built for this specific time.”

Amazing Grace opens on Thursday.

STARS: Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, Southern California Community Choir.

DIRECTORS: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack


REVIEWER'S LAST WORD: A wonderfully stripped-back concert film that gives you a front-row seat in the church where Aretha Franklin recorded her famous live gospel album.

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