MAY 22, 2019
“YOU CAN’T IMAGINE God living here.” When my then mother-in-law said that to me years ago at a wedding in a stark modern church, she was making an aesthetic judgment as much as a spiritual one. She looked at this low, angled building — at the huge bare spaces, the lack of detail or even the simplest ornamentation — and she simply didn’t feel herself to be in the presence of a presence. She didn’t feel caught up in something larger than herself. There isn’t a moment in Amazing Grace, the miraculously rescued documentary of the recording of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel album, where I didn’t feel in the presence of something bigger, something divine. But since history is what you need to go through before you get to deliverance, first some background on how the album, and then the movie, came to be.
The first part of the story is well known. Aretha (it’s impossible to call her by her last name) had long wanted to record a gospel album. She made the decision to do it live in Los Angeles, over two nights at Watts’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where she was backed by Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir as well as by her own band. When the result was released it became the best-selling gospel album ever.
What wasn’t widely known until recently was that the sessions were filmed for Warner Bros. under the direction of Sydney Pollack. By all accounts, Pollack and his team made a disastrous miscalculation by not using clapperboards — the purpose of which is to sync image to sound — to mark the start of filming. After six weeks of trying to edit the resulting footage, including hiring lip readers, the filmmakers abandoned the project. The footage lay untouched for years until the music producer Alan Elliott acquired the rights to it in 2008. New technology allowed him to solve the synchronization problems, but then Elliott had to deal with Aretha herself who, for reasons not clear, reportedly didn’t want the movie released. After her death last year, her estate agreed that it should be seen. (The finished film has no directing credit, though it is listed as “produced & realized” by Elliott. No cinematographers are credited.)
Amazing Grace doesn’t possess the stunning visual design of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or the conceptual brilliance (performance-as-process) of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. It isn’t a pretty film. The camerawork is catch-as-catch-can; sometimes a shot is already in progress before it’s properly focused. The church, a former movie theater dominated by a tacky mural of Christ behind the altar, is in need of a general sprucing up. Yet the experience of the movie is one of profound beauty and immediacy. A more polished approach would be false to the subject.
This is not to resurrect old, condescending arguments that imply that gospel in particular, or black music in general, is lacking in sophistication or technique — that it is, in effect, the performers simply being natural. That argument is a way of denying craft and genius. Gospel is crafted so that we can hear and feel that its reach for the transcendent is rooted in the earth. Sweat flows freely in this film. James Cleveland, a large man of seductive good humor, takes off his jacket for many of the performances. At one point, Aretha’s father, the famous preacher C. L. Franklin, mops his daughter’s brow as she plays the piano. Throughout, there is a powerful sense of heat rising from the bodies close together in the crowded pews.
The marks of physical toil rendered in the service of songs that ring with the assurance of reaching a promised land, even as they detail the travails of existence here and now, seem to me a sign of gospel’s refusal to separate God from the rest of life. God is given His glory in Amazing Grace, but He is anything but a distant presence in the music unfurling before us. The depth of conviction on display, as well as the style of the performance, is proof that the belief being professed is lived — not just taken out for Sunday morning dress-up.
The reviews for Amazing Grace haven’t avoided its religious content. Over a shot of Aretha, her head thrown back in rapture, the movie’s poster features this quote from Rolling Stone: “It will make you feel as if you’ve seen the face of God.” I’d go further. Amazing Grace is a sustained demonstration of the aesthetic uselessness of atheism: an implicit argument that there is no point of making art or responding to it if you begin by denying the possibility of transcendence. To do so is to put limits on how art is creatively produced and imaginatively experienced. I’m not suggesting that artists and audiences need to believe in God. Many great artists haven’t. In fact, those artists may wind up expressing their beliefs on such a momentous scale that they achieve, perhaps, a kind of negative transcendence. Not all art provides the overwhelming experience that seeing and hearing Aretha Franklin sing here does. But art, at its greatest, sweeps us up into something bigger than ourselves. “I once was lost but now am found,” goes the line from the hymn that gives this movie its name. The art that affects us most profoundly makes us feel both lost and found at the same time.
That’s the paradox that describes Aretha’s performance. From the moment she enters (in a flowing white, lightly sequined gown the first night; a high-necked green paisley gown on the second), we are watching someone who, by losing herself in service to the music, gives free rein to the highest expression of her talent. Her singing here is not about letting go — it’s not about the singing-as-spectacle that TV talent competitions have conditioned us to be wowed by — but it’s characterized by a profound and abiding patience. The writer Jonathan Cott once talked about how Buddy Holly, in “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” mixes up the present with the longed-for future because he is certain true love will come his way. That’s a good description of how Aretha sings of deliverance in these numbers.
Her selections meld the secular and sacred, including pop numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” and the combination of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” into one number. But that melding is strongest in the rousing “How I Got Over,” and particularly in the up-tempo rendition of the beautiful old hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” which seems to finally understand its true meaning. For a song meant to be about the lifting of burden it is almost invariably sung as a burden, so solemnly that you can feel the singer weighed down by what he or she is claiming Jesus has relieved. Aretha’s version rings with joy, and if the more solemn numbers don’t have that jubilation, they communicate a soul-deep satisfaction and sense of peace.
There’s a moment in Mahalia Jackson’s famous Saturday night/Sunday morning appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (captured in Bert Stern’s film Jazz on a Summer’s Day) where she responds to the audience’s rapturous reception by saying, “You make me feel like a star.” Stars existed in a world of glamour quite apart from the world of gospel. Aretha steps to the pulpit in Amazing Grace with great humility but a star nonetheless — much more so than her gospel idol, Sister Clara Ward, sitting in the front row for the second night, ever was. And that commitment of humility and star power is why her work here is so dazzling. Aretha wears her greatness here naturally.
No one argues the greatness of Aretha Franklin. But it’s hard to talk about the presence of the spiritual in art at a time when many people find it nearly impossible to separate religion from the way a stunted version of Christianity is being used to justify the ugliest reactionary politics the United States has seen in decades. In a 1979 essay, the music writer Tom Smucker located the potential for political and social change inside the supposedly conservative boundaries of gospel. He wrote:
How can you have the expectation of freedom in an unfree world unless you’re in touch with a freedom that judges history, but is independent of it? […] [Gospel] isn’t apolitical if I can have a vision of myself that surpasses the constrictions of my circumstances, social and personal, including my isolation and death.
The memory of the Civil Rights movement was in Smucker’s words. It is in Amazing Grace, too — the way the philosophy of nonviolence insisted that the violence done to the body could not defeat the spirit or the righteousness of the cause. Amazing Grace was filmed at a time when the triumphs of the ’50s and ’60s had come to seem very far away. Maybe, though, there is a purpose in its coming to us at a time when it can seem almost as if they never happened. This document of artistry and joy is, at this moment, also one of resistance and endurance. And to see Aretha incandescent on the screen, mere months after her death, is its own type of transcendence. Tom Smucker wrote in that essay, “The trick is just in understanding how to invite the spirit into the reality of each situation.” Forty-seven years after it was filmed, this is the possibility of deliverance that Amazing Grace holds out to us.