“Amazing Grace” is more than a movie.
It’s a chance to see and hear Aretha Franklin perform the live sessions that birthed her immortal 1972 gospel double-album of the same name. That’s all you need.
And if you miss it during its extended run in Louisville this month, you’ll be the poorer for it.
The film, which opens Wednesday, May 8, at Speed Cinema, showcases the overwhelming talent of Franklin at her artistic peak, during an era when she was dominating the pop and R&B charts. It also captures the passion and joy of a gospel musical service, largely through the charisma of Franklin’s collaborator, the Rev. James Cleveland, and his Southern California Community Choir.
This is a movie that needs to be seen in the company of other people who love music. Buy your ticket.
“Amazing Grace” currently is set to run through May 26 at the Speed, which has scheduled 43 screenings of the film, the most the cinema has booked for an initial run, said Dean Otto, the Speed’s curator of film.
“People have been anticipating this film for decades,” Otto said. “I really wanted to give everyone in the community a chance to see it, to experience it. It’s so powerful.”
First and foremost, “Amazing Grace” is the record of a church musical service. It was filmed over two days at the Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and most in attendance were members of the faith community.
Unlike “Monterey Pop” (1968) and other musical documentaries of the era, there’s very little screen time devoted to framing the event as a cultural happening — director Sydney Pollack, for the most part, focuses on Franklin’s performance and the exaltation of her audience.
The audience at Speed’s first public screening of “Amazing Grace” last week shared that excitement, often clapping and calling “amen” with the performance. Many members of that invitation-only crowd were from church groups in Louisville’s African-American community, and certainly a personal connection with the film’s religious themes can only enhance the its emotional power.
It is, at its core, a movie of a church service.
But anyone with a heartbeat will be moved by the passion on screen, and it’s an experience that needs to be shared in a theater with other people. Netflix is just not going to cut it for this one.
In the sessions, Franklin and Cleveland include some contemporary arrangements, including Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.” The standouts, however, are more traditional choral performances of “Precious Memories” and “Climbing Higher Mountains.”
Franklin also sings “How I Got Over,” written by gospel legend Clara Ward, who attended the second night’s recording session.
Throughout the film, Franklin is entirely focused on the performance and rarely speaks — a level of concentration that was indicative of live shows throughout her career. Cleveland’s charm and humor serves as a welcoming balance to her intensity. And the impresario musicianship of Cornell Dupree, Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey don’t hurt, either.
This is about as good as it gets.
And for a few decades, it looked like nobody was going to get to see it.
Back in 1972, Warner Bros. was so excited about the prospect of a live Aretha Franklin movie that it tapped rising star Pollack, who was nominated for an Oscar for 1969’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” to direct. (Some reports claim the studio planned to release “Amazing Grace” on a double-bill with “Superfly,” a huge hit for the studio.)
But Pollack had never filmed a live performance before, and he made the almost incomprehensible error of not using a clapper to time mark his footage. With three cameras running, this made it effectively impossible to sync the separately recorded performance audio with the filmed footage.
So, the movie was scrapped, while “Amazing Grace” went on to be Franklin’s best-selling album.
But the flick was not entirely forgotten. In the early 2000s, Alan Elliott, an A&R man at Atlantic Records, approached Pollack about reviving the project, based on the availability of new digital editing technologies. (Elliott told Rolling Stone that “Amazing Grace” was his favorite album.)
After Pollack’s death in 2008, Elliott continued to champion the film’s completion, with a first cut being finished around 2011. A lot folks were ecstatic about the news — but these folks did not include Franklin herself.
Otto said no one is certain as to exactly why Franklin didn’t want the film to circulate. At one point, she reportedly asked for as much as $5 million for rights, an enormous amount for a low-circulation film, even one as hotly anticipated as “Amazing Grace.”
(Since it began limited screenings in major markets last December, the film has grossed about $2.8 million.)
At the Speed’s debut screening, Otto speculated that Franklin may well have simply been personally offended that her passion project — which would have been a major hit had it been released as planned — was botched by Warner Bros. all those years ago.
Whatever her reasons, Franklin was dead set against “Amazing Grace” ever seeing the light of day, filing injunctions to successfully block screenings at several prestigious film festivals.
But Elliott’s advocacy for the film never faltered, and he continued to negotiate with Franklin’s attorney. After Franklin’s death last year, Elliott was invited to screen the film for her family, who loved it, and “within five minutes, they had come up with a deal,” Otto said.
Everybody else loves it, too. “Amazing Grace” posted a record one-week run at New York’s Film Forum last December, pulling in about $80,000, and was quickly picked up for national circulation. The distributor wanted to open it in Louisville by Easter, but Otto said he wanted to avoid the distractions that come with the Derby season and ensure the film had undivided attention during its run.
At the Speed, “Amazing Grace” will be cross-programmed with several exhibitions, including the current “Yinka Shonibare CBE: The American Library,” which is set to run through September. Otto also plans to screen a restoration of the gospel documentary “Say Amen, Somebody” (1982) later in this summer.
Additional screenings may be added at the Speed — the smash hit “RBG” ended up showing 79 times at the cinema last year — but it’s probably a good idea to go ahead and buy that ticket at the Speed website.