04 March 2010
On January 12 & 13, 1972, Aretha Franklin entered the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and sang spirituals, just as the "Queen of Soul" had done since she was a youngster growing up in Detroit. The result was the double album Amazing Grace, which is still the biggest selling gospel record of all-time (it went double platinum and won a Grammy in 1972).
Given the box office success of Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, Warner Brothers (owners of Aretha's label, Atlantic Records) was keen on producing a documentary of the performances. The studio hired a young director named Sydney Pollack for the job. Pollack was an up-and-comer in the film game, with They Shoot Horses, Don't They? to his credit.
Footage was captured by Pollack and three other cameramen and the job of editing was set to begin when Warners pulled the plug on the project, claiming audiences would not turn out for such secular subject matter.
More than 20 hours of film was vaulted away for 38 years. Only snippets have been seen by the public at large (in an "American Masters" episode on PBS in 1988). Pollack tried to have the project resurrected a number of times, as did famed Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler. Both passed away over the last two years.
Fortunately, Pollack - who would go on to be an Academy Award winning director - left copious notes with regard to the 16mm footage, and the end result will be soon released on DVD, labeled "a film by Sydney Pollack." Noted author David Ritz (who co-wrote Aretha's autobiography and also authored the definitive biography of Marvin Gaye) has apparently seen most of the canisters of film. "It's the perfect music, an artist at her height, everybody there to make her feel confident and loved, the music of her childhood and the encouragement of the African-American church," says Ritz. He reports that Rev. Alexander Hamilton is seen conducting the gospel choir and is accompanied on the piano by his boss, the gospel giant Rev. James Cleveland. In the audience is Aretha's father, Rev. C. L. Franklin and her mentor, Clara Ward. And Mick Jagger is in one of the pews clapping along.
The song selections are mainly spiritual standards, with a couple of modern compositions (Gaye's "Wholy Holy" and Carole King's "You've Got A Friend").
Hamilton says he's happy the film may finally be released: "Maybe because it's history now. Here is one of the most famous artists in the world, as she was then, doing something that nobody had ever done, or has really done since. So I think the film is going to find a wider audience, not just because of its gospel roots, but because of its historical value."
No release date as of yet, but here is the trailer to Amazing Grace. We dare you to sit still.