Thirty-four seconds. That’s how long it takes Aretha Franklin to sing “Amazing Grace.” I timed it.
I don’t mean it takes her that long to sing the entirety of the hymn that gives the transcendent new concert film its name. I mean it takes her 34 seconds just to sing those first two words. Her voice rising and falling, reaching for the rafters and then spiraling downward, she packs a song’s worth of emotion into just those two words: Amazing grace.
It’s one of many astonishing moments in a film that was 47 years in the making. In 1972, fresh off of a string of R&B hits like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” Franklin decided to go back to her gospel roots. She would record a gospel album with her backing band and the Southern California Community Choir, and she would record it live in a church, the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles.
While the album was being recorded, director Sydney Pollack was hired to direct a concert film version of the sessions, which took place over two nights. The album would become a best seller, but there were technical problems with the film — the sound and picture were out of sync — and the footage was shelved.
Decades later, producer Alan Elliott bought the footage from Warner Bros. and hired digital experts to use now-available technology to match up the images and the soundtrack. Franklin always resisted having the footage released, but after her death last year, Elliott showed her family the film he had rescued, and they gave him their blessing. The result feels like a lost artifact that transports the viewer into the pews at New Temple for an unforgettable musical experience.
While “Amazing Grace” opens with some behind-the-scenes footage of Pollack and his team setting up for the recording, we fittingly never see Franklin until she takes the stage, and we never hear from her until she starts to sing Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.” While the Rev. James Cleveland talks to the crowd between songs, joking around at times, Franklin is all business, focused on the recording of the album, and pouring her heart and soul into every verse. From “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” to “How I Got Over,” from tender ballads to clap-along rave-ups, Franklin and her musicians shake the rafters.
Cleveland exhorts the audience not to sit quietly in their seats but to “let them know you’re here,” as they would at any Sunday service, and they don’t need to be told twice. The energy in the room is electric, with parishioners swaying and clapping, leaping from their seats to cheer on every hairpin turn of Franklin’s voice. The camera finds one famous fan, Mick Jagger, cheering from the back of the hall.
“Amazing Grace” is a deliberately unadorned film, and the raw footage that Pollack shot has an intimate, unguarded quality. Sometimes the camera isn’t quite where it should be, other times somebody accidentally crosses into the shot. But those technical imperfections give the film an urgent immediacy, especially in a movie theater.
Midway through the singing of “Amazing Grace,” Cleveland staggers off-stage and finds a seat in the pews, holding his head in his hands, overcome with emotion as Franklin’s voice fills the room. Nearly a half-century later, many audience members will feel just as carried away.