Arts & Books

Aretha Franklin, witness to the Gospel

Amazing Grace is one of the greatest concert movies of all time

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin travelled to Los Angeles to join her good friend Pastor James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir to record a gospel album. That album, entitled Amazing Grace, went on to become the bestselling gospel recording of all time.

Warner Brothers sent director Sydney Pollack to film the recording sessions in the New Bethel Baptist Church with a live audience. At the time, Pollack was a veteran television director but had only a few films to credit. Pollack forgot to use clappers between the songs, creating such difficulty in synchronising the video with the sound that he gave up on finishing it.

In 2007, as Pollack was dying, he gave all the material to producer/composer Alan Elliot. More than a decade later, Amazing Grace, the documentary, has finally been finished and released. The result is a sensation – Amazing Grace deserves to stand beside the greatest concert films of all time, such as Monterrey Pop (1968) and The Last Waltz (1978). What distinguishes Amazing Grace from the rest is the music and the performer: This is not the pop star Aretha of the late 60s; this is the Aretha who grew up singing gospel songs.

When she sings old black gospel songs like Precious Lord, which she sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, there’s an emotional connection between herself, the choir and the audience that’s both soulful and joyful, the joy of overcoming the pain and sadness of the historic black community in America. For many fans of gospel singing, Aretha’s voice contained a purity that has few precursors and no successors.

By 1972, Aretha had become a revered figure in the black community. Her pop music captured the generation: civil rights, sexual revolution, the decline of the black male and the ascendancy of the black woman. For black women, she has been a rock of stability and a source of inspiration to face the crumbling of black culture. It’s no accident that 1972 was the year the movie Super Fly, an exaltation of black pimps, was released.

But Amazing Grace is a return to her roots, and her performance is breathtaking. Aretha combines perfect musicianship with a modest, almost placid, presence punctuated by flights into the gospel ether. Her eyes are often closed, and when her improvisation starts a layered ascent, her face turns upward reaching the fullness of jubilation. At these moments, you are made to realise this is not another performance for her but an act of her witnessing about Jesus Christ.

Pastor James Cleveland accompanies on the piano with grand bravado, choral director Alexander Hamilton was Dudamel long before Dudamel, and the Southern California Cathedral Choir make a funky entrance that made me want to cheer.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s arts editor