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The story of Amazing Grace might be just as intriguing and emotional as the film itself. Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) directed the film that showed Aretha Franklin's two-night performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972, but they could never sync the print with the audio tracks, which were released as a live album in 1972, and a subsequent complete recordings set was released years later. Pollack gave the film to Alan Elliott before his death in 2008 and allowed him to complete the film. And was thwarted two different times by Franklin (citing image rights reasons) before her death in 2018. Shortly thereafter, Franklin's family agreed to the release of the film late last year.
And man, what a performance it is. The church appears to be fairly nondescript, maybe a little intimate in terms of the venue, but it comes across sounding great in the film. You've got Franklin at the peak of her talents, singing music she grew up with (her reverend father in the front row watching her) and she just belts it out. During one of the songs ("Take My Hand" I think?) there is a tight shot of her, face beading with sweat, mascara running ever so slightly down her eyes, and you can see what she's putting into it. That type of visceral emotion yet not being garish for the sake of doing so, will bring any mortal to tears. And as it turned out later in the film, it did for the Church's pastor, James Cleveland. He is all of us.
The film isn't anything else other than the concerts. You see a mix of parishoners both regulars and notables (Rolling Stone Mick Jagger being among the famous admirers of Franklin). There isn't any other context the film tries to give you, it's 85-90 minutes of Aretha singing, bringing people to tears, being propped up literally as she's belting out a song, and sitting down during breaks when the sermon is going on. No fat on the bones of this, you get the performance which is a revelation to those not familiar with the album.
The thing I was struck by as I was watching the film, and you experience it early on, is how artificial the sound seems compared to the film. Pollack gives some instruction to a crew member beforehand and the sound is too…modern? It's not lip-synching, but it gives the impression of it. But then Aretha comes in, makes you cry in five minutes and blows your doors off with her singing and you forget about it pretty damned quickly.
I think we all have a general idea of how great Aretha Franklin was as a singer, but seeing Amazing Grace at a point as close to her peak as possible, sans embellishment or enhancement, really gives you a deeper appreciation for her work and this particular album, which remains one of the greatest out there. It's really easy to watch this film and comes close to an epiphany as many have said.
In 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, things look good for the most part. There hasn't been any sort of edge enhancement applied to the image, black levels aren't deep but do appear natural, light is blown out a little at times, but film grain is present through the film and the people look natural and the colors accurate. About what you'd expect.
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for this which does what it needs to. The keyboard and bass provide a better than expected low end, though crowd noise is a little less than expected from the immersion factor? You do pick up some moments off microphone like when Aretha looks for (and quickly finds) a glass of water between songs, and some modest jokes between the music. Also about what you'd expect, a little more power than I was anticipating, but in a good way.
Nothing, which is a bummer, but maybe a Criterion version is in the cards?
The trailer for Amazing Grace pretty much sums it up. Aretha comes on, sings the song, wows people, end of trailer. It's something to be experienced to appreciate, and frankly if you're dismissive of Aretha Franklin singing gospel for a live album, I may have to question your tastes in things more than music. Technically it's a fine disc, though the lack of extra material is a bummer. Strong recommend to enjoy this performance and enjoy what others have.