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Aretha Franklin Gospel Film Finally Has a Release Date, 46 Years After It Was Made (NYTimes)

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The documentary “Amazing Grace,” with Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance of the song, will have its world premiere Nov. 12 in New York at the festival Doc NYC.               Credit Daniel Lefevre/INA, via Getty Images

 

 

By Brooks Barnes 

LOS ANGELES — One of Hollywood’s holy grails, “Amazing Grace,” capturing what is considered to be Aretha Franklin’s most transcendent gospel performance, is headed to theaters 46 years after it was filmed.

“Her fans need to see this film, which is so pure and so joyous,” Sabrina Owens, Ms. Franklin’s niece and the executor of the Franklin estate, said in an interview. “And the world needs to see it. Our country, it’s in such a state right now.” She declined to comment on terms of the deal.

Freed from legal entanglements — Ms. Franklin, who died in August, sued repeatedly over the years to block its release — “Amazing Grace” will have its world premiere next Monday, Nov. 12, in New York at Doc NYC, a festival dedicated to nonfiction cinema. To qualify for the 2019 Academy Awards, the 87-minute film will then receive one-week runs in Los Angeles in November and in New York in December. Alan Elliott, one of the film’s producers, said “Amazing Grace” would most likely arrive in wide release in January, perhaps coinciding with Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

“We want to honor her legacy,” Mr. Elliott said in a separate interview. “Her artistry and her genius are alive in every frame.”

 

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most famous films never released. It was shot by Sydney Pollack over two nights in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as Ms. Franklin recorded an album that would become one of the best-selling gospel records of all time. The New Yorker called the album, “Amazing Grace,” Ms. Franklin’s “most shattering and indispensable recording.”

Anchored by an 11-minute version of “Amazing Grace,” the record includes definitive interpretations of songs like “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a slavery-era spiritual. The Rev. James Cleveland, the pioneering gospel singer, was on hand to introduce Ms. Franklin. Mick Jagger sat in a pew toward the back.

 

But the film recording was mishandled. Mr. Pollack, who died in 2008, failed to use clapper boards, a crucial tool in matching sound with filmed images in a predigital era. And he had 20 hours of raw footage shot by five 16-millimeter cameras to sync.

Frustrated film editors at Warner Bros., which financed the shoot, ultimately gave up, having missed the 1972 release of the “Amazing Grace” album. Mr. Pollack turned to a new directing project, “The Way We Were,” starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. And the “Amazing Grace” negatives began to gather dust in the Warner vaults.

Mr. Elliott, who had been obsessed with the lost footage since working as a music executive in the mid-1980s, ultimately persuaded Warner to sell him the reels in 2007. (He mortgaged his house.) By 2010, digital technology had evolved to a point that syncing film and sound was finally possible.

As a planned release date approached in 2011, however, Ms. Franklin sued Mr. Elliott for using her likeness without her permission. That started years of legal wrangling, with Ms. Franklin and her lawyers blocking Mr. Elliott and the Telluride Film Festival from showing “Amazing Grace” in 2015 and 2016, even after deals for her compensation seemed to have been worked out. The singer’s opposition appeared not to have anything to do with the film’s content, which she had said publicly that she “loved.”

“There is just this deep-seated desire for something to not happen right now, so I’d rather just respect her wishes,” Julie Huntsinger, executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, told Variety last year.

Film insiders speculated that the release of the movie, which ends with a young Ms. Franklin performing “Never Grow Old,” was simply too difficult for the ailing singer to confront — that she knew it amounted to a eulogy.

Legal clearance finally came after Ms. Owens invited Mr. Elliott to her aunt’s funeral in Detroit. A couple of weeks later, he contacted Ms. Owens about restarting talks. “Sabrina said, ‘Why don’t you come and show the movie to the family?’” he said. He flew to Michigan and did just that on Sept. 20. About 25 people were there.

“There was clapping and crying,” Ms. Owens said.

Mr. Elliott said that he spoke to Ms. Owens as he left for the airport and she said, “Let’s do it.”

Unless “Amazing Grace” hits an unforeseen snag, its release will mark the second time this year that a film will have made its way to theaters after decades in purgatory. “The Other Side of the Wind,” which Orson Welles left unfinished upon his death in 1985, was completed and shown for the first time in North America at the Telluride festival in September. Netflix started streaming it last week.

Moviegoer interest in “Amazing Grace” will most likely be strong. Feel-good documentaries such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” about Fred Rogers, the star of public television’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and “RBG,” which looks at Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court associate justice, have lately been ticket-selling machines. Movies built around music have also been doing well with audiences. Over the weekend, the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” arrived to an astounding $50 million in ticket sales in North America.

 

And the dramatic late arrival of “Amazing Grace” is sure to shake up the race for best documentary at the Oscars. The film’s producers may also try for a best picture nomination.

“Aretha would want us going for a best picture,” Mr. Elliott said. “And she’d want to win, too.”

 
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B2 of the New York edition with the headline: After Years of Legal Limbo, Queen of Soul Sings Again.
 
 
 
 

‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church

 

By Wesley Morris

Albums don’t “matter,” anymore. But they used to, and when they did, Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday, was responsible for one of the very best: “Amazing Grace,” a live album recorded over two days in January 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.

The excellence of “Amazing Grace” is no secret. It’s still one of the country’s best-selling gospel records, as well as Franklin’s most popular album. Bloomsbury’s music-criticism book series, 33 1/3, put out an exhaustive forensic appreciation by Aaron Cohen in 2011. And in 2016, in a reverent critical profile of Franklin for The New Yorker, David Remnick called it “perhaps her most shattering and indispensable recording.”

Yet it’s frequently dispensed with. Polls of the great albums rarely include it. (An NPR poll, from last year, of the 150 best albums by women and nonbinary artists, had it at No. 23.) Generally, if a list bothers with Franklin at all, the obvious choice is “Lady Soul” from 1968, her 14th album. It’s the one with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Ain’t No Way.” Or, her 11th, from the year before: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the one with “Respect,” “Drown in My Own Tears,” and “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business).” No complaints here.

“I Never Loved a Man” is a narcotic album — its 11 perfectly done songs should come in a pill bottle. But “Amazing Grace” is an artist reaching another level. It’s as long as a movie and as deep as the valley of the shadow of death. It should be included alongside the usual suspects — your “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Rubber Soul” and “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Pet Sounds” — each regarded as monumental.

 

This was a monument, too.

In the Baptist tradition, when the spirit stirs you, you move. You clap. You get on your feet and slap at the air. You whoop. You carry on. You disturb the floor with a flurry of taps, like your feet are burning. So it goes in the Aretha tradition, too.

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This is to say that whoever was out in the seats that weekend came pre-stirred. The first song is “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Before it starts, the Rev. James Cleveland, the pioneering gospel singer, introduces Franklin to the congregation. Then an organ chimes in and applause builds to a simmer. At the 11th second, a woman, with a rasp, says something that I’ve never been able to make out, but the translation is basically, “Come on, Aretha. Let ’er rip!” Franklin’s lethal four-man band and the Southern California Community Choir ease out of the gates before she does. The rhythm’s a vamp. It sounds like somebody sneaking through the house for a midnight snack. But the tiptoeing is set to a waltz. “Oh. Oh. Ma-ry,” sings the choir, preparing the mood for Franklin, who answers, eventually, with a blurting “Mary!” of her own.

Aretha Franklin - "Mary, Don't You Weep"   Credit Video by Aretha Franklin - Topic

There’s a mighty bristling as the song starts to come together. Presumably, they’d all heard “Mary Don’t You Weep.” It’s a slavery-era spiritual, built around, among other things, a despairing plea for Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. Almost every church choir has a version. The Swan Silvertones’s incarnation and, later, Sam Cooke’s, with the Soul Stirrers, might be the best known — as doo-wop. In Los Angeles that day, people bristled, perhaps, because they hadn’t ever expected to experience one that topped Inez Andrews’s tearing into it, with the Caravans in the 1958. Or maybe they bristled because they knew this version was going to be good. It’s much better than that.

A rhythm section was Franklin’s gospel innovation. She installed some swing and paved a road for her singing to go to town. About four and a half minutes into “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Franklin skips town altogether and is out in the solar system, a one-woman space program, synopsizing the story of Lazarus’s plight, but from the point of view of his sister Mary, who in her grief over her brother’s death, sees fit to chastise Jesus. So it’s theater, too. Franklin caterwauls as Mary, then resumes serenity as Christ, who asks to see the body. The band and the choir set the table for Franklin, and the whole troupe serves the meal of Jesus’ miracle.

 

This arrangement doesn’t tell you amazement has taken place. It becomes the amazement. Franklin’s Jesus wails for Lazarus to hear him, her voice a whip in one syllable and a caress in the next — religion itself! As Jesus strains through the impossible — Laaaaaaaaaaaazarus! Oh yeah! — giving life to the dead, two women separate from the choral multitude and ululate with awe, gently, soulfully, as if they’re about to pass out. This isn’t a moment you want to encounter in a vulnerable spot. I heard it jaywalking once, and actually stopped in the middle of the street, about to faint with disbelief. Who succeeds at upstaging a biblical miracle with a musical one? And yet it’s not only pious. Franklin’s reverence can wink: “He got up walking like a natural man. Oh, yes, he did,” she sings, yanking Lazarus out of death and into one of her hits.

By this point, the bristling has long given way to Baptist stirring. People are hollering. At Aretha Franklin. In a church. (That until the 1960s was a movie theater.) They’re telling her to go on. They’re prodding her to keep them exhilarated, praising her praising the Lord. We’re not in New Temple Missionary, and yet: Aren’t we? You can hear each guitar plink, each bongo spank. You can practically smell myrrh wafting from the organ. This isn’t happenstance. It’s engineering. Franklin had reconstructed these songs. This one moves at the same pace as the Caravans’, but it’s got more dimensions, more heft.

The entire album is a feat of witty, hooky arrangements, of mischief, ecstasy and bass. The repeated running together of the word “everything” on “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” really is everything. The gospel claps there and on “How I Got Over” (and everywhere else, really) are castanet clear. And “Wholy Holy” is such a celestial R&B achievement that the second-best place to experience it, after a black church, is the nearest planetarium.

So much of the experience listening to music — gospel and otherwise — is feeling it, catching the spirit. “Amazing Grace” is a church full of people’s spirits getting caught, over and over — by Aretha. A movie exists of these two days. Why no one’s seen it is a long story, mainly involving Franklin’s own wishes. But the audio experience has always been cinema enough. How do you hear people going crazy as she unfurls the song “Amazing Grace” and not assume that she’s levitating, that she’s levitating them.

The whoops and hollers are as crucial to the glory of this album as Franklin, the choir and the band. She is but the centerpiece around which a lively stained-glass scene is built — the stirrer and the stirred. Franklin alone with a piano would have sufficed. But she swings for a more radical gospel music that weds emotional might to musical muscle. Her going for the max maxes you out. This is what virtuosity should do — leave you knock-kneed, perform the unthinkable. Maybe Mary shouldn’t weep. But you and I are a different story.

 
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church.
 
 
 
 

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I was hired to help with re syncing the audio to the video for this project years ago. It was filmed with three or four 16mm cameras just picking shots off at random, a sound man just holding a 415T (my guess) recording to a Nagra, and of course the multi track which became the album. It was never released because there was no way to sync the video to the sound because there was no audio reference on the film. I had to take each piece of video and find where it belonged on the timeline by looking at Aretha’s mouth, making out words, hand claps, etc. It was a difficult process, and could only have been accomplished thanks to digital workflows. I’m glad this is finally seeing the light of day. I did this work 8 years ago!

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