Reel Reviews | Amazing Grace (DocNYC)

by Tim Gordon

One of the most discussed and anticipated lost musical gems of all-time finally sees the light of day decades later with the release of Aretha Franklin’s iconic live gospel album-turned documentary, Amazing Grace.

46 years ago on two electric spirit-filled evenings in January 1972, Franklin recorded her first live gospel album, which would go on to make music history. The concert would eventually sell over two-million units becoming the largest selling live gospel album in music history.

Collaborating with the legendary “King of Gospel Music,” Reverand James Cleveland and his famed Southern California Community Choir under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, Franklin shines on a series of soul-stirring traditional gospel hymns and pop-gospel “mashups which got the crowd to their feet including Wholly Holy, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, Precious Memories, Never Grow Old, Climb Higher Mountains, and others which captured The Queen of Soul at the peak of her vocal powers.

The younger generation remembers Franklin only through her legendary catalog of groundbreaking hit songs and female empowerment anthems or her revival during the mid-1980s. Here, we see her at the height of her vocal powers fierce, young, gifted, and soulfully Black. She doesn’t just tell a story with her music but almost demands that you FEEL her passion and emotion with every single note during this legendary recording.

Initially tense and nervous,  Franklin soon hits her stride raising the roof, with the help of the Holy Spirit and that precious instrument known as the greatest voice in popular music. Franklin is magnificent and comfortable back in an all-too-familiar setting as she takes the church on a musical journey through her childhood spent accompanying her famous father, the Reverand C.L. Franklin.

For decades many have wondered why Franklin was reluctant to release this seminal work. One reason was the technical headaches that initially plagued the project. Apparently, Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack failed to synchronize the sound and the picture before each take which made it unreleasable during that period. It was only during the past 15 years that the technology to correct the problem was created, and by that time Franklin clearly had emotionally moved on.

What a pity, because the doc showcases her voice, luminous and anointed as throngs, including her famous father, gospel inspirations, Clara Ward, Cleveland as well a certain famous fan, Mick Jagger sway and move to the syncopations of her heavenly and angelic voice.

Click the cover to play the album

As a child, this album was revered and played religiously every Sunday in my and other gospel homes coast-to-coast. Several times, Franklin’s voice moved me to tears as I remembered those golden times of my youth as well as the memory of my father, who LOVED this album and Franklin, herself who left us this past August.

It is a shame that despite its tiny production imperfections, which created a feeling that is akin to placing you in the middle of the experience, Franklin sought to permanently shelve this project. While her soul is at rest and her legacy secured, this landmark musical gem serves as a fitting tribute for lovers of Franklin and a worthy addition to the gospel music canon. It is a cinematic testament to the Holy-Ghost power and lasting impact of the woman voted the greatest singer of all-time.

The irony is that the documentary, which will have a one-week run for awards qualifying may be the one final way for voters who loved Franklin to show her their R-E-S-P-E-C-T!!!

Grade: A