Aretha Franklin’s lost concert film comes to light

A legendary live performance shot by Sydney Pollack in 1972 gets a theatrical release.

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace

Aretha Franklin’s 1972 album Amazing Grace is one of the best-known and best-selling crossover gospel albums of all time, not to mention Franklin’s best-selling album of her career. Chances are that if you’ve heard Franklin sing gospel, it was something off this record, which was captured live in a Los Angeles Baptist church over two nights. What’s much less common knowledge about Amazing Grace is the fact that both nights were captured on film by Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, who had yet to make the biggest films of his career but had made They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a few years prior. Pollack and a relatively small crew piled into the church and captured every inch of Franklin’s performance — and that film was never completed due to technical problems.

The official reason for the burying of Pollack’s Amazing Grace was that the sound could not be synced because Pollack had neglected to use a clapboard in order to facilitate the synchronization of footage with the audio recordings. As digital technology improved, however, this became less of a problem, and yet the film’s completion was constantly thwarted by Franklin and her people, who pursued legal recourse on more than one occasion in order to stop the release of the film. Now, more than a decade after Pollack’s death and less than a year after Franklin’s, Amazing Grace finally sees the light of day. Although technically rather limited by the physical dimensions of the church, it’s a rare opportunity to see crystal-clear footage of Franklin at her peak. Backed by a skeleton crew of jazz stalwarts (Bernard Purdie, Cornell Dupree and Chuck Rainey), the Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin delivers an hour and a half of blistering gospel.

Music industry insider Alan Elliott was the man tasked by Pollack to finish the project; Elliott isn’t so much the director (he was not, in fact, on the premises when the film was shot) as much as a sort of production coordinator who worked towards fixing the film’s considerable technical problems.

“It’s like therapy: I can talk about all of it now,” says Elliott. “It’s almost like a part of my childhood — it’s taken so long that my oldest child was in my wife’s belly when we started and now she’s about to start middle school! There’s a lot of time to cover there!”

“When there was a record business for real, I worked at Atlantic Records,” he continues. “That’s when I discovered that the footage was there. There was no such thing as digital technology back then — it was still people making film in… not exactly a primitive way, but without the use of computers or anything like that. It wasn’t possible then, but the other thing was that Sydney Pollack never told me there was a problem with the sync! When we first started the conversation in 1990, it was couched in the fact that Aretha Franklin was difficult and that she’d never given her permission; these things revolve around Aretha, but in fact, they actually revolved around the fact that Sydney had messed up the audio! Not to be blithe about these things, but when you’re dealing with legendary directors, they’re not real quick to admit that the whole reason the movie got screwed up was their fault!”

For those of us familiar with the original album, the music contained in the film won’t necessarily be a revelation. However, as Elliott explains, they’re two different masters of the same recording, and thus present fairly different sonic pictures on either side.

“There are two-inch tapes of the recordings that were made by the record company, and two-inch tapes that were made for the film company,” he explains. “For instance, Aretha took the record company masters and brought them back to New York where she did overdubs on the recordings. For the film stuff, that was left pristine and original — and that’s what I got to deal with.”

Amazing Grace is interesting in a “lost footage” sense because of how much of the show it contains. Typically, concerts from the era that have been “lost” were lost either because the footage was destroyed or taped over to make space for a new capture.Often all that remains of a classic performance is one poor-quality sequence and perhaps equally shoddy bootleg recordings. That Elliott had so much to work with — especially considering the film was shot at a time when most “pop” recordings were considered to be disposable — is one of the many things that makes Amazing Grace an invaluable document.

“There was only 14 hours of footage,” Elliott says. “Not a lot. It felt even less when we were making it, because it felt like all three or four cameras would run out of film at the same time. We would then have to figure out how we would deal with it. Still, there are times when I watch the movie and I think, ‘Oh my God, I think we’re going to run out of footage. What are we gonna do for a shot?!’ It’s funny — Oprah Winfrey called me one day. She said, ‘I didn’t like what you did with “Mary, Don’t You Weep!” And I said, ‘Well, there wasn’t enough film! They’d turned the cameras off!’ And she went, ‘Ohhhh! Well, that would make sense!’ There was a certain amount of shoehorning stuff in; inevitably, there would be three cameras on one shot at the same time, and they would all run out of film.”

It’s also surprising to see how relatively small the church is. Once it’s filled with the audience, there aren’t too many places where the camera operators can stand in order to capture the concert.

“I like that idea,” says Elliott. “To me, the magic of the movie is the long takes and our being immersed in them. When you have to watch a long take, all of a sudden you’re looking in the corners. You’re seeing this guy, that musician… To me, that’s the fun, because you get to really be there. In terms of post-apocalyptic record business, if you go through the history of concert films and since the advent of MTV, it’s become quick cuts. Ten cuts per minute, or something like that. Twenty cuts per minute! Something to show you there’s emotion, to cover up things, maybe for energy. This is deliberately the antidote. You’re forced to be in the room. I want to immerse everybody in the idea that this is what happened. That, to me, is much more fun than trying different ways of promoting energy. The energy needs to come from us, the viewer, because I always knew that the record was as good as it was ever going to get.” ■

Amazing Grace opens in theatres on Friday, April 26. Watch the trailer here: