Review: Aretha Franklin’s musicality astounds in ‘Amazing Grace’

by Madison Wilson | 7/19/19 2:00am

“Amazing Grace,” the 2018 movie about the two days spent recording Aretha Franklin’s bestselling live album of the same name, showed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts last weekend. The movie is a true feat, resurrecting footage taken at the event in 1972 but unavailable until now due to technical problems in which video failed to sync with the sound. Finally, in this incredible film, we are able to see the Queen of Soul perform her album “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles.

Full stop, the film is beautiful: not necessarily in its visuals but in what it conveys. It details the two evenings on which Franklin performed this album, backed by the Southern California Community Choir with a live audience. We see the choir, the crowd, Franklin’s father and even a cameo by Mick Jagger. The camera work is fairly basic, panning between Franklin, the choir behind her and the audience in front. Clearly, camera work is not the main focus, but the visuals allow us to approach Franklin’s music with greater empathy and understand her artistic process. 

A few shots stand out, however. Throughout the film, the camera looks up at Franklin playing the piano from below, almost deifying her. Occasionally, the view moves to splitscreen between Franklin and the audience, and we get to watch in real time Aretha’s effect on both the choir and the attendees. While this primarily emphasizes Franklin’s astounding influence, it also serves to break up visual monotony and create a dynamic film. 

The music is, of course, stunning, particularly when Aretha and reverend James Cleveland improvise or when Franklin rouses the choir to sing an extended encore. Particularly notable are performances of the title song, “Amazing Grace,” opening number Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and the classic gospel track “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” 

The live show communicates how powerful the Southern California Community Choir is, as well as how integral they and Cleveland — also the choir’s director and founder ­— were to the record. The power and foundation of the choir allow Franklin’s voice to play with the melody of the music. She rings clear above the choir’s strong harmonies, creating the vocal contrast that carries both nights of the performance. 

Aretha Franklin live is nothing short of rousing, almost spiritual. She doesn’t need to dance, to sway or even to really perform to connect with her audience. After “Amazing Grace,” Cleveland sits with his head between his knees, sobbing. Occasionally, the camera zooms in on a particular audience member, showing them laughing, crying, dancing. The reactions to the music run the gamut but regardless of the song, the audience could not stand still. Watching their reactions as an audience member myself was an immersive experience, allowing me to understand their reactions even 50 years removed from the event itself. 

A speech by Franklin’s father proved one of the most touching features of the film. On night two, Cleveland details Franklin’s history in music, discussing how, from a young age, her talent was obvious. He cannot help but break into tears, and in a later shot, he wipes the sweat from her forehead as she plays the piano. 

While barebones, the visuals show us Franklin’s fundamental conflict: effort versus natural talent. We see the sweat dripping down her forehead and jaw, then we see her stand at the podium, eyes closed, notes almost unfathomably high coming out of her voice box as natural as speaking. This film provides insight into the process of artistic creation and the sheer sweat required to create the greatest gospel record of all time. 

Why has this movie taken almost 50 years to grace the silver screen? While there were technological challenges with the film and audio, fundamentally, Franklin herself did not want anyone to see this film, suing producer Alan Elliot at multiple occasions to prevent its release. Why is unclear, but through watching this film, we can see her discomfort with applause, her seeming lack of joy — but then, she opens her mouth, and it all goes away. 

Although many forces have obstructed the film’s journey to the screen, it provides insightful commentary into the artistry of the Queen of Soul.