In "Amazing Grace," a 46-year-old gospel movie that feels like a rough gem discovered in a time capsule, Aretha Franklin, standing in the pulpit of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section Los Angeles, offers a hymn called "Climbing higher mountains" that makes everyone in the place stand up and sing jazz. The audience is up, the singers in the Southern California Community Choir are up, Mick Jagger, lurking in the back of the church, is up, but what really comes is Franklin's voice. She always had a range that extended (just think of the sinuous melody in her transcendent version of "I Say a Little Prayer"), but in "Amazing Grace" her voice never leaves the record higher. The effect is ecstatic; She sounds like the most sacred of the trumpets, with each note brilliantly bright but soft as velvet. Listening to Franklin, you feel that you can mount that voice in the heavens. She is not just a singer, she is a human car.
"Amazing Grace" is a record shot of the two nights, in January 1972, during which Franklin recorded the gospel performances that became the famous live double album "Amazing Grace". Not only is it the best-selling gospel record of all time. But the best-selling album of Franklin's 50-year career. She was at the height of her stardom, with 20 albums and 11 number one singles (all the iconic hits: "Respect", "Chain of Fools", "Think", etc.) to her credit, and she wanted to make a record that honor the roots of the formative gospel of your youth.
Warner Bros. hired director Sydney Pollack to film the sessions (this was the early '70s heyday of Verité's grainy concert film), and in' Amazing Grace 'we see Pollack wandering around the church, directing the action and at a given time the House. But the project ended up being filed. There was a serious technical failure (much of the sound was not synchronized with the images), and later, when attempts were made to solve that problem, Franklin herself repeatedly blocked attempts to launch the film. It is not clear why, but now that it has been restored and assembled lovingly (the sound is clear like a bell, and in perfect synchronization), "Amazing Grace" can be considered as an essential filmed record of what is undoubtedly one of the better performances of the Gospel. you will see it sometime
Visually, the movie is not much to talk about. The church, a flat and quite dilapidated place, looks both gloomy and too bright, and during the first night is only half full, creating the atmosphere of a filmed rehearsal. But Aretha herself is incandescent. And the film, although filmed in a neutral manner as a segment of a news magazine (there is about a minute of split screen, and there should have been much more), has a structure that develops silently. Franklin was 29 when "Amazing Grace" was recorded, and in her silky costumes and her light blue eyeshadow and a set of earrings that look like jeweled bunches of tiny snowballs, it's a magnetic paradox: a diva getting her ego in front of the Lord. He almost never talks between songs, but his contact with those who have gathered to be in the audience is, in any case, even more direct. She has her mind on higher things.
It can be speculated that Mick Jagger approached because he was still finishing the recording of "Exile on Main Street", an album submerged in the raw majesty of the gospel like anyone in the history of rock. Another revealing figure that appears is the father of Franklin, the Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, with whom he traveled as a child gospel singer. He is handsome and aristocratic, like Billy Dee Williams as a player of ecclesiastical power. In the few minutes that are in front of the church together, we can see how Aretha became stronger with him, in a moment, he gently wipes the sweat off his face and, at the same time, how he felt the need to earn respect. of a world of men who felt as good as he seems. Apart from Aretha, the most memorable characters in the film are still those whose names we do not know: the dancing praises that rise from the audience, jubilant and possessed, to tremble like volcanic ships, and the occasional bright silver dress. member of the Community Chorus of Southern California, which will literally appear, with a spontaneity that is both touching and comical, when the spirit moves them.
Franklin's collaborator at the concerts was the Reverend James Cleveland, the gospel legend who did everything he could to popularize the form beyond the black church (he won four Grammy awards). At one point, the portly, deeply playful and affectionate reverend tells a story about how he was picking up clothes at the dry cleaners, and the woman who worked there asked him if Aretha, whom he had seen on television the night before, was going to to go. to go back to the church. The Reverend replied: "She never left the church."
Seeing "Amazing Grace", we see how deeply that is true. Not only because Franklin sings praises to Jesus with all the flower of his virtuosity, but because there is such a remarkable continuity between the religious fervor he expresses here and the "secular" fervor of his pop and R & B songs. Most of the numbers in "Amazing Grace" are hymns or traditional, like the lilting "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" or the meditative "Precious Memories", and some are reconfigured versions of the great pop numbers of the spirit, like Carole . King & # 39; s "You Have Got Friend" or Marvin Gaye "Wholy Holy". But the sound is never pious or autumnal. It is majestic and very high and atomic with rhythm.
If the blues is the formal and spiritual foundation of rock & # 39; n & # 39; roll, it is the joy of the gospel that gave rock its roll. That's what you hear in "Amazing Grace." The film reveals how the fundamental distinction between "rock & # 39; n & # 39; n & # 39; roll "and" rhythm and blues "was not only racist in its essence, but it was a way for consumer culture to cut God off. out of the music that was made up As a way to talk to God. In "Amazing Grace", Aretha Franklin transcends the blues by saying a small prayer, or singing one, for all of us.