The History Behind ‘Amazing Grace’ – The New Documentary On Aretha Franklin

Aretha_TNAretha Franklin had been an icon in her lifetime and her legacy very much still lives on. Having been a true inspiration in my own love for gospel and jazz music, I was amazed to hear of Amazing Grace, a new film released in May this year (2019) exploring the life of the queen herself. The film shows footage of Franklin performing gospel songs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972, footage that lay ‘uncompleted in the vaults for another 38 years’ stated by the Guardian. The film depicts the 29-year-old Franklin in full harmony with the music in her veins, shortly accompanied too by her father Reverend CL Franklin. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, members of The Rolling Stones are also seen stood at the back as they were in Los Angeles to record their album, Exile on Main Street. The film was originally directed by Sydney Pollack (1934-2008), a well-known American director most known for the academy award winning film Out of Africa. Despite a creative mind working on the film, the Guardian describes the original film as ‘hobbled by gobsmacking mistakes’ along with ‘poor planning’ and eventually ‘Franklin’s health issues’, caused the footage to be stored away until the new director, Alan Elliott, discovered the outstanding piece of art.

Elliott discovered the footage in the early 90s when Jerry Wexler, a friend who had previously produced many of Aretha Franklin’s albums, mentioned the film. Elliot had been a long-time fan of the specific album, Amazing Grace, which was released in 1972. Later, both men had small conversations with Sydney Pollack, yet Elliot took almost two decades to raise the idea again with Wexler. However, time was unforgiving as Pollack was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2008, just as the film was being rediscovered, and he told Elliot to complete the forgotten film without him.

In terms of her performance, Franklin’s late niece Sabrina Owens describes the clear contrast of the gospel spirit compared to her powerful pop concerts. She states ‘Her eyes were closed. Her head thrown back.’ After listening to the album again, I can only imagine the passion of that concert in 1972. The reconstruction was difficult as Pollack’s main reason for rejecting the footage was the difficulty and absence of synchronising the footage with the sound. Furthermore, the footage was also in fragments as the ‘camera guys kept turning their cameras off and on’ and Elliott expresses the task being ‘unfathomable’. Overall, this resulted in over 2,000 film fragments, which were out of time to be reconstructed to modern standards. However, Elliott describes the consistent changes to film as creating energy as well as ‘allowing them to take these beautiful pictures.’ In total, the new technical team working on the footage spent a grand three weeks to create a total of 12-14 hours of film from the concert.

Eventually, after the film was made, it took a further 10 years for it to be released in 2019, as no signed contract was to be found by Franklin to mark the approval of the release. In addition to this, Franklin further challenged and prevented the release in her later life as her health slowed down. Elliott later commented on this with full respect, as he understands the inevitable urge for a tour and consistent press around her, which, in her slowing age, was understandably not wanted.

Overall, the immense past of the new film adds another layer of history and character to the unseen footage. The queen herself is in her element as she sings the outstanding gospel music of her album, Amazing Grace, her legend living on forever.

Hannah (Year 13), Head of Moberly


Photo credit Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images / Universal Images Group