One of the many joys of living in Berlin is being able to see films premiering at one of the most important film festivals of world, the Berlinale (officially the "Berlin International Film Festival"), with hardly any effort. However, if you stay clear of Potsdamer Platz (as most locals do), the festival is actually easy to overlook as a resident. That's what happened to me last year. This year, I almost suffered the same fate, but I at last came to my senses and managed to get tickets for Amazing Grace.
The backstory is already gripping without knowing much about the actual content. A young Sydney Pollack was given the opportunity to film a young Aretha Franklin at her commercial peak, recording a hugely successful gospel double album live in a baptist church in Los Angeles. However, he didn't do anything to note which cameras were recording which songs on which reel, and the effort of synchronizing the audio to the video was such a tedious and challenging chore that everyone involved gave up.
Sydney Pollack kept the idea alive, though, and right before he died in 2008, he passed the project over to Alan Elliott. Elliott, aided by modern computing, was finally able to get the synchronization job done, only to be blocked from releasing the film by Aretha Franklin herself. She was apparently upset about money, a missing contract, or permission, but after her death last year, her estate finally assented to the distribution of the film. Almost 47 years after the two nights of the performance, the film started making the festival rounds.
The film has almost the same running time as the original album (just under an hour and a half). There are no unreleased songs, almost no rehearsal footage, and very little in the way of framing the performances. The choir marches in in full silver-vested glory, the Reverend James Cleveland introduces Aretha, and about half of the songs from the first night at shown. It switches to the second night for the rest of the songs plus a scene introducing Clara Ward, who alternates between sitting awkwardly and dancing frantically, and Aretha's father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who delivers a speech about Aretha's gospel roots.
Regardless of how one feels about gospel, the music is stirring, and Aretha's performance is stellar. She doesn't say a lot (Cleveland handles most of the hyping), and the only apparent emotion she shows is deep passion for the music. It is that very intensity that makes her entrancing. She plays piano on a couple songs and she does it without even looking or seeming to notice the effort; her voice doesn't even register the distraction. The rest of the band is similarly talented, although they are generally overwhelmed (or at least overshadowed) by the handclapping and vocals of Aretha and the powerful and enthusiastic Southern California Community Choir.
There is some irony that the weakest song of the set is the title track itself, "Amazing Grace". Aretha's version is overlong, melodramatic, and exaggerated. However, the rest of the material is great. Even for the non-religious, the lyrics are inspirational, and the impassioned spirituality of the performers and the highly responsive audience make the whole thing feel like an overdue celebration. It's easy to get carried along. Everyone appears to be having a good time. The audience is incredibly thrilled to be there and they show it.
I'll admit that I might not have sought out this movie if I hadn't stumbled across it on the Berlinale schedule and gotten taken in by the story. I'm glad I went, though; it was uplifting and insightful. I could've done without cameos by the Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, and I would've appreciated some more footage of the rehearsals, but there wasn't much chaff in what did make the cut. It was a strong performance and a significant moment in musical history, so it's our luck that someone had the bright idea of filming it all.
Sydney Pollack's 'Amazing Grace': The Tortured 4-Decade History of the Film Aretha Franklin Wants to Stop from the Hollywood Reporter
Aretha Franklin Didn’t Want You to See This Movie. But You Must. from the New York Times
P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!