Amazing Grace is a live recording of the much beloved Aretha Franklin, offering up a transcending array of praise songs before a church crowd, the album of which soon became, and still is, the best-selling gospel album of all time. But this is no ordinary concert and its effects stretch far beyond those present at the time.
It’s 1972 and Aretha Franklin is an international superstar, renowned for timeless classics such as ‘Respect’, ‘Chain of Fools’ and ‘Think’; upbeat, soul-stirring and shamelessly feminist melodies that have seeped their way into the public consciousness. Franklin’s deeply mesmerising voice is still today famed for bellowing out catchy, meaningful numbers that punctuate the air with bursts of tuneful, uplifting joy.
It was then no doubt a pleasant yet unprecedented surprise when Franklin, at the very peak of her fame, with 20 albums and 11 number one hits to her name, and bucking against all the hysteria and public adulation surrounding her, made a sudden return to her gospel roots in deciding to perform live for a filmed concert — not at a grand and glitzy event hall but at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The same church hall, in fact, where Franklin sang as a young child.
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The Southern California Community Choir were in place to provide backing vocals while the much esteemed and refreshingly charismatic Reverend James Cleveland fit well as the event’s host. It is a rather dilapidated, dimly lit church hall that is revealed in the opening scenes of Amazing Grace, just over half full with folk donning an impressive array of afros, silk shirts and flared suits, but brimming with anticipation.
Then suddenly, without any fuss or accompaniment, Franklin herself glides up an aisle on the left, gently touching extended hands on her way, cloaked in an almost regal yet elegantly simple white gown, her own particular afro almost halo like, perfectly crowning her surprisingly focused and introverted expression.
It is an act of amazing grace indeed, to behold Franklin as she takes to the pulpit and fills that church hall with unadulterated, unhinged praise songs such as “Give Yourself to Jesus” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep”. Her voice is powerful, evocative and it is immediately clear to us, with her eyes closed throughout almost all her singing and her head raised above, that Franklin has transcended the four walls surrounding her as she sings in awe of the Saviour she so clearly loves.
Each compelling delivery by Franklin is both intimate and pure. This concert is not about the artist deemed by many as so very great, but about the one that this artist herself worships as the greatest.
Franklin doesn’t address the audience directly at all during the film, but such is the strength of her spiritual devotion through song that the congregation is roused to fervent head nodding, dancing and even propelling of one’s body ‘in the spirit’!
This might sound all too familiar to those who have had a plethora of church hall experiences that fluctuate between being awe inspiring and absurd. Franklin, throughout the footage, remains tuned into an almost tangible, spiritual realm that embraces all observers, even through the heavily pixelated, home-video style of this almost 50-year-old footage.
Franklin connects with her audience by connecting with the God that is so often absent from popular (often gospel influenced) secular music; the God that is seldom uttered from the mouths of those with her status and legacy.
Cleverly directed by Sydney Pollack, the only thing missing from this concert film is the need to diversify the footage somewhat. Shots of the area, people, and real life around the church’s location, for example, set against the backdrop of Franklin’s praise melodies or even a few frames focusing on the beauty or nature amidst everything man made, could have been used to effectively break up the church hall focus.
There are snippets of Franklin outside of the official recording, such as a brief moment we glimpse her during a sound check, poised yet relaxed, reserved yet warm and clearly very serious about the task at hand – all captured in what seemed like a 60 second snapshot. More of that would have been very welcome.
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However, there is no real focus on Franklin, which turns out to be the film’s strength. Still, using the camera to focus on what was beyond the pulpit could have provided some invaluable insight into the church’s context and just how significant the purity of true worship, especially led by a star like Franklin, is to the congregation present, and, indeed, to the world.
Nevertheless, the brilliance of Amazing Grace is that it miraculously teleports us out of all the hate, division and disaster of our new millennial world and takes us back to a moment in time, where things were much simpler, much clearer. A moment characterised not by place or time but fixed deep within our hearts and minds — a state of worship, in response to divine, amazing grace.
Kemi J Williams
Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.