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Amazing Grace
by Becky Tan

The hymn Amazing Grace was created in 1770 by John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship. Two hundred years later, it was (and is today) a heartfelt gospel popular in American churches, especially those frequented by black Americans. In January 1972 famous black singer Aretha Franklin performed two evenings in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She was accompanied by a band and a black choir directed by Alex Hamilton. The event was organized by the pastor of the church, Reverend James Cleveland, who also sang, played the Steinway piano, and was master of ceremonies. The two evenings were taped and turned into a two-record album called “Amazing Grace” which became the most-sold gospel album of all time. There was also the plan to film the events. Sydney Pollack was hired as director. Aretha Franklin approved of the idea of a film. Woodstock has come out a bit earlier to great success for the musicians. Around the same time singers Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross had jumped from music to film to become “movie stars” which Franklin also expected to do.

Unfortunately, plans went awry in every possible way.  Pollack had no experience making documentaries; he hired the wrong photographers with the wrong type of cameras. He dropped the whole mess and went on to further his career on other projects. The films sat in a vault at Warner Brothers for 35 years and then Alan Elliott, who had been seven years old when the performance originally took place, became interested, researching the works and talking to the participants. Franklin was frustrated and upset that her dream had not come true, at least not in this particular project. Elliott only saw her one time; by then she was a real “queen” (not only of soul but also in egotism), and expected millions in payment, although the film was on a $75,000 shoestring. Pollack died a year later and his family refused to cooperate, requesting that Pollack’s name be removed from this project. Franklin’s family asked the producers to stop the film. Aretha Franklin died August 16, 2018, shortly before the film was finished.  

Luckily for us, Alan Elliott carried on in spite of hindrances. The film seems old-fashioned, compared to what we are accustomed to seeing today. Most important are the close-ups of Aretha Franklin on the two evenings and the musicians- The audience, of which about 90% are black Americans, are regular members of the congregation and friends of Reverend Cleveland. We spot Mick Jagger, Sydney Pollack, and Charlie Watts. Also, Franklin’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, attends. He is also the pastor of a Baptist Church and narrates, recalling going on tours with Franklin when she was only 11 years old and already beginning her career. Some of the songs you will recognize are “Wholly Holly,” “What a Friend we have in Jesus,” “Precious Memories,” “Mary Don’t you Weep,” “Climbing Higher Mountains,” “Old Landmark,” “The Walking,” Never Grow Old,” and of course, “Amazing Grace,” which she sings in an 11-minute dramatic version about 45 minutes into the film, or at the end of the first half.

I enjoyed the music so much; I was surprised that my audience of film makers/journalists/actors did not clap, as the church congregation was doing on screen. How could you sit still with this music, which makes a normal church in Germany seem boring by comparison? I would have liked to have heard a more familiar rendition of “Amazing Grace,” instead of this almost unrecognizable one, which reflected all of Franklin’s talents, but was not what I was expecting.