Friday, October 25, 2019

Amazing Grace

US 2018. PC: Al's Records & Tapes Production / 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks / Rampant / Time / Warner Bros. / Sundial Pictures. P: Joe Boyd, Alan Elliott, Rob Johnson, Spike Lee, Sabrina V. Owens, Angie Seegers, Tirrell D. Whittley, Joseph Woolf.
    D: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack.
    Cinematography: shot with five 16 mm cameras.
    Digital restoration: John Kearns.
    S: Serge Perron.
    ED: Jeff Buchanan.
    89 min
    Release date: 5 April 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 4 Oct 2019 – distributed by Cinema Mondo – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Outi Kainulainen / Frej Grönholm.
    DCP viewed at Maxim 2, Helsinki, 25 Oct 2019.

    Aretha Franklin – piano, lead vocals
    Rev. James Cleveland – piano, lead vocals
    Cornell Dupree – guitar
    Rev. C. L. Franklin – vocals
    Kenneth "Ken" Lupper – organ, additional keyboards
    Pancho Morales – congas, additional percussion
    Bernard Purdie – drums
    Chuck Rainey – bass
    Southern California Community Choir – background vocals

Music Production
    Aretha Franklin – producer, musical arrangements
    Rev. James Cleveland – choir director
    Jimmy Douglass – assistant recording engineer
    Rev. Alexander Hamilton – assistant choir director
    Wally Heider – recording engineer
    Arif Mardin – producer, remixing, music editing
    Gene Paul – assistant recording engineer
    George Piros – assistant recording engineer
    Ray Thompson – recording engineer
    Jerry Wexler – producer

[My reconstruction – the credits flash past so fast that they are impossible to read]:

Thursday Night Show – 13 Jan 1972
"Organ Introduction (On Our Way)" – Performed by Kenneth Lupper
"Opening Remarks" – Performed by Rev. James Cleveland
"On Our Way" – Performed by Southern California Community Choir
"Aretha's Introduction" – Performed by Rev. James Cleveland
"Wholy Holy" (Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland)
"What a Friend We Have in Jesus" (Joseph M. Scriven, Charles Crozat Converse)
"How I Got Over" (Clara Ward)
"Medley: Precious Lord, Take My Hand / You've Got a Friend" (Thomas A. Dorsey, Frank Frazier / Carole King)
"Amazing Grace" (John Newton)

Friday Night Show - 14 Jan 1972
"Climbing Higher Mountains" (Traditional)
"Old Landmark" (W. Herbert Brewster, Adeline M. Brunner)
"Mary, Don't You Weep" (Spiritual)
"Never Grow Old" (Traditional)
"Remarks by Reverend C. L. Franklin"
"Precious Memories" (J. B. F. Wright)

Good things are worth waiting for.

Aretha Franklin's legendary gospel performances are well-known from the Amazing Grace double LP released in 1972. She needed the intimate family situation and the reverent church atmosphere to achieve these performances. In the studio they would not have been the same. But for some reason she did not want Amazing Grace the movie to be shown. She died over a year ago, in August 2018. Only then it has become possible to release this outstanding documentary.

Amazing Grace the movie is a straight record of two performances at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. The setting is modest, the seats are cheap, and the church is badly lit. Aretha Franklin is humble and focused. There is nothing to distract us.

The only concern of the film is music. The only concern of the music is holy service.

The structure of the movie and the two concerts is crescendo. We start high and rise even higher in both concerts. Already in the beginning members of the audience and even the choir have trouble keeping their balance. For instance Clara Ward in the front row is distraught in ecstasy.

In the first concert the climax is "Amazing Grace". Having built speed during preceding numbers Aretha Franklin's powerful voice now rises to otherworldly spheres and embarks onto a space odyssey. Even the choir director, Reverend James Cleveland, is shattered and comes to hold Aretha. But who is supporting who? Finally Cleveland cannot control himself and breaks into uncontrollable sobs. Like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha transforms a familiar song into something completely original and personal. Understandably the choir and the orchestra have to struggle to keep up with her. She never loses control, but in the end even she is totally stunned and consumed.

The second concert is a journey back to childhood, introduced by Aretha's father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, who even helps wipe sweat from his daughter's forehead. We hear Aretha singing the song from her first single, "Never Grow Old", released in 1956. Then she rises to another shattering climax, a rendition of "Precious Memories", a childhood favourite. In these songs Aretha returns home in many senses.

Amazing Grace is a filmed record of a religious service, but the movie carries also a powerful social and political charge. The church is located in Watts, Los Angeles, site of the infamous Watts race riots. The melody of "Amazing Grace" is based on a traditional Scottish folk tune, but the lyrics of the hymn were written in 1772 by John Newton, a clergyman who had been formerly working on slave ships for years.

I once was lost
but now am found

Was blind
now I can see

In his introduction James Cleveland refers to the powerful changes of the last twenty years. He did not need to specify that to his audience, but for the modern viewer it is good to remember that those were the years of the American civil rights movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. All gospels in black church music carry social messages. Clara Ward's "How I Got Over" is particularly associated with racial bullying. Amazing Grace catches a historical moment of crisis in the civil rights movement. It builds momentum towards a triumph of the spirit during the backlash of the Nixon era.

The audience is almost all black, but Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be glimpsed watching the second performance unobtrusively in the background. Critics have remarked that The Rolling Stones were recording Exile on Main Street (1972) at the time, evidently being influenced by a legendary fellow performer. But their gospel influences had been apparent since the beginning, for instance in their cover of Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" on their debut album The Rolling Stones (1964).

The digital transfer of the original 16 mm footage has been conducted with good taste. A soft and grainy quality remains, as do warm hues and a feeling of the heat of spiritual ecstasy.

There were Finnish and Swedish subtitles in the spoken introductions but no titling during the songs, nor were they identified via captions. Even English subtitles would be helpful for the non-English audience because these are songs with a message.

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