Recorded over two evenings this concert film charts the live recording of Aretha Franklin’s 'Amazing Grace' the best selling gospel music album of all time. Directed by Sydney Pollack and mired in technical and legal difficulties the movie finally reaches cinema screens.
To break it down on paper 'Amazing Grace' there is nothing special about it. It is as concert films go pretty standard. It doesn't pull in the range of guests of 'The Last Waltz', nor the production values of 'Stop Making Sense'. But there is just something indescribably brilliant about it.
As the reverend points out at the start of the film, they might be recording an album but it is also a religious ceremony. In Europe we encounter gospel music as often as we encounter a polite Parisian. We just don't have the cultural or historical roots to comprehend it. But even without this you can tell how deeply meaningful the music is for the musicians and audience alike. There is a raw often unseen passion and you can't help but get swept up in it.
By its very nature and the time the footage was shot there is an unspoken political element that unfortunately feels just as relevant today, a depressing fact considering almost five decades has passed since.
For those familiar with the album in its original form may find it to be a very different experience so works as a great companion. Filmed over two nights, the songs appear in chronological order of recording, unlike the album. There is a real shift in focus however. With the original album Aretha is always a clear and distinct presence with the listener. But in the film, she seems distant and ethereal. She doesn't speak between the songs nor really acknowledge the camera and is often not the central focus of the shots. I don’t think it is done on purpose but a happy by-product.
This means that the Rev. James Cleveland becomes a central focus for the film. He warms up the audience and has a witty charm that is very endearing. Cleary well suited to crowed work (being a reverend and all) he really helps keep a thread throughout without ever pulling focus or dominating the screen when it is no needed.
During the running time you start to become very familiar with the faces in the crowd and it is one of the great joys of the film. The whoops and hollers that are so engrained in my ear that it is nice to see put faces to them. There is one fella in the choir that I became obsessed with, for the first 50 minutes or so he looks completely uninterested in being there. I couldn’t stop wondering how he could be so blasé about being a choir that is singing with Aretha Franklin! But during their rendition of 'Amazing Grace' he stands up and completely loses it, totally engrossed and carried away into the music and in that moment I felt pretty good about the world.
'Amazing Grace' is essential viewing for music lovers. There is just something so satisfying and pleasing for the soul getting to sit for a couple of hours in the dark with some fantastic music. If this is what church was like, I’d go every week.