Sydney Film Festival Review: Amazing Grace makes you want to sing hallelujah with Aretha Franklin

There is no question that the late, great Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul. But what you may not know is that she was also an accomplished gospel singer; the daughter of a preacher who first developed her musical chops at church. Amazing Grace is a homage to Franklin’s past, a 1972 concert film that not only lives up to but actually surpasses the adjective in its title.

In the early seventies, Franklin had already won several Grammies and had big hits with “Respect” and “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”. She was a lady at the peak of her game. She also decided to record a gospel album over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A. The resulting LP sold like hotcakes but the video lay dormant for years after some technical issues.

Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) directed the original film. The crew at the time made the mistake of not using a clapper, which caused syncing issues with the sound and visuals. Alan Elliott has since managed to overcome this mammoth problem thanks to some new, digital wizardry. And while Franklin stopped this film from being released whilst she was alive, her estate has now given its blessing.

Amazing Grace sits somewhere between a music documentary, a concert film and a religious service. Franklin is captivating with her band of musicians: Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie. They are also backed by the Southern California Community Choir who are led by Alexander Hamilton. One of the other big stars of this show is Franklin’s mentor, the Reverend James Cleveland. This minister accompanies the group and is the witty and smooth-talking MC for both nights.

Franklin and Co. play some excellent tunes including Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and the eponymous track. There are also some Gospel standards like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. Franklin is incredible here, her vocals transcend reality and soar so high that they almost reach a raw, spiritual realm.

It’s incredible that there are no bells and whistles here. There are no flashing lights, video screens or dazzling costume changes. This is just Franklin pure and simple with her powerhouse vocals and the accomplished group that accompany her. Sometimes she is put on a pedestal, behind the pulpit or tinkering the ivories. But at other moments she plays second fiddle to the two ministers including: host Cleveland and her father, Reverend CL Franklin. The latter proves to be quite an imposing figure when he makes a speech about his talented daughter.

This concert is a knockout one and The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts were both there. You can often see the audience get swept up in a kind of fervour and energy reserved for worshipping idols. Amazing Grace feels like it could be an excellent swansong for Franklin. It’s a straightforward piece but one filled with so much love, atmosphere and intensity that by the end of it you’ll be screaming, “My God, she takes me there!”

 

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Amazing Grace plays as part of the 66th Annual Sydney Film Festival. For more information and tickets head HERE.

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