It’s almost inconceivable to think that, in the year of our lord 2019, a movie would be totally inaccessible. Meaning no way of watching it, no illegal streams, no YouTube clips, no nothing.
There are notorious unreleased films — Jerry Lewis thought his drama The Day the Clown Cried, about a circus clown in a concentration camp, was so bad that he swore to never show it to audiences — but there’s a holy aura around Amazing Grace, a Aretha Franklin concert documentary that Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, Out of Africa) shot in a church, which is finally being seen after more than four decades in limbo.
Over the course of two nights in 1972 (incidentally the same year that Lewis’ film was shot), Aretha Franklin recorded the double album Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Pollack was hired to film the proceedings, however, he neglected to use clapper boards, thereby making it a Herculean task to sync audio and video. The film editors at Warner Bros. eventually gave up, having missed the release of the album. Despite the titanic success of the album — it was the biggest selling disc of Franklin’s career — Pollack’s 20 hours of footage became destined never to be seen.
Throughout the years, true believers remained optimistic, including producer Alan Elliott, who bought the rights to the footage in 2007 and, with the help of new technology, finished syncing the footage with the audio recordings in 2010. Further trouble followed when Franklin herself prevented the film’s release by suing Elliott — first when the film was finished and then again when it was scheduled to play at several film festivals in 2015 — for the unauthorized use of her likeness.
That the film is being released now is thanks to Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece as well as the executor of the late singer’s estate, and the experience of seeing it is still utterly singular. Though the album is still readily available, the only footage to ever creep online is the film’s trailer.
As divine as the album is, actually seeing Franklin perform — in perfect voice and perfectly poised — and basking in the reactions of the gathered audience (including Mick Jagger, on the session’s second night) creates an entirely new experience. Concert documentaries are a tricky genre, often playing like dutiful recordings of events; sometimes experiments in visuals and music in themselves; sometimes experiential, the closest approximation there is to seeing that music performed live. Amazing Grace is that last categorization and more, without ever seeming like facsimile — it’s too intimate to be. Franklin isn’t playing to a stadium, she’s playing to a church (which isn’t even full on the first night of recording), and she’s not performing a concert. She’s recording an album.
There’s similarly no fanciness to what Pollack and his crew are doing — they’re documenting the proceedings, and there’s no need ornament them. The emotions on the faces of the gathered congregation speak for themselves, as does Franklin’s performance. Her voice shoots through the rafters, through the gathered congregation, and through the audience, as well.
The vulnerability that Franklin conveys — she looks exhausted at points, though her voice never wears — is invisible in the album recording. So is the way the members of the Southern California Community Choir leap to their feet whenever Franklin hits a high note, or the way the crowd becomes a roil of joy.
Why Franklin didn’t want Amazing Grace to be seen remains unclear, as she reportedly loved the film. Some speculated that Franklin thought the documentary, which ends with her performing “Never Grow Old,” would essentially be a eulogy. For better or worse, that’s exactly what it is. But more than that, it’s a captured experience, an unusually close look at an artist in full control of her powers. At the risk of sounding trite, it’s the kind of experience that makes it easy to understand how and why people find religion. It’s not ascribing to one faith in particular so much as it is acknowledging the utter, transporting power of Franklin’s voice.
Amazing Grace is out now in theaters.