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Jeff Simon: After 47 years, 'Amazing Grace' is gift to American music

Jeff Simon

Some of us have waited 47 years to see "Amazing Grace" now showing in the Dipson Amherst Theatre. If you're one of us, the ancient and tacky cliche will suffice: Run don't walk.

Aretha Franklin's voice was never better than it was during this concert/recording session from 1972. Her joy in exploring what to sing on record was never more self-evident than it is in some of these closeups from Sydney Pollack's film. Her taste in knowing what her audience desperately wanted to hear her sing was never more solid.

This is Aretha in her first flush of major power as a performer. She'd won Grammies, made massive hits and was already one of the most beloved musical performers in America. She'd long since left Columbia records' sad misuse of her astonishing gifts and flourished under Jerry Wexler's consummate intelligence in letting her be herself at Atlantic.

The result was massive popularity that never really left her. She would become one of the greatest musical figures of our lifetime, but along with it in 1972, she had the clout to do what she wanted to do. She had the friends who rejoiced that she wanted to do it.

What she wanted to do was go back to the gospel music that first revealed her gift when she was astonishing the world as the singing star for the services of her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (who, before unveiling Aretha in Detroit, lived and preached in Buffalo). So she opened up an L.A. recording session to the public and to Pollack's movie cameras for a record and a TV special. The resultant record, her "Amazing Grace," is the largest selling gospel record of all time -- and deservedly so.

The TV special -- and the film from it -- was embattled, worried over and ultimately stuffed into a vault never to be seen in either her lifetime or that of its director, the great Sydney Pollack ("They Shoot Horses, Don't They," "Out of Africa," "Tootsie").

For dedicated Arethites of any sort, "Amazing Grace" is not to be missed. If, in fact, you have any deep feeling for American music at all, you'd have to be daft to give the film a pass.

The reasons why the film was hidden away for 47 years will remain perennially mysterious. Who, in heaven's name, would withhold such a glorious and inimitable American singer revisiting the first repertoire that revealed her gifts and exploring it in the most transported way?

What we were originally told is Pollack had somehow neglected to use a clapperboard during the shooting, which left the visual and the audio tracks difficult, if not impossible, to synchronize. If that sounds like absolute hooey to you, it has always sounded like pure applesauce to me, too. Hollywood and American recording technicians routinely perform miracles every day that are beyond all understanding. All it needed were some wizards and some concerted efforts and some money. All have always been in massive show business supply in America, for anyone willing to deploy them.

Then there were business problems -- the usual Hollywood goo about who owns what and who's got what rights and whose fingers might be too sticky. The final "not so fast," though, was the decisive one. Aretha herself didn't want the film released in her lifetime, even after it was plain as day someone like Alan Elliott and friends were going to be able to put together a viable film version of it for movie theaters. (Among those on the case big time was Spike Lee.)

You don't have to have much imagination to come up with about 50 reasons why the final "no" about release of "Amazing Grace" came from Aretha Franklin herself. There are times when what you're seeing seems almost too personal. When she sings her loose, phenomenally expressive version of the venerable old hymn that gives the film its title, her partner in the record and concert -- Rev. James Cleveland -- is seen so overcome with emotion he has to walk off to an empty choir stall to sob and dry his face. Let's grant that gospel performers have a devilish emotional grammar of their own to hold performances together, but it's still more than likely he was indeed overcome with emotion. Aretha Franklin was his friend from her youth. They had indeed both come a long way to discover how much amazing grace was possible.

Was Cleveland too conspicuous in the film for her later tastes? Was the film too personal in spots? Was it, in its showing of the event's second night, too overrun by American showbiz to reflect her original insistence on authenticity for the record/film (yes, that's Mick Jagger in the audience, eminently visible -- as well as less conspicuous Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts).

Whatever the reason, you have to remember that Aretha has always been abstemious, to put it mildly, with her private self. Her life has been anything but middle-class and ordinary, which is one reason why she, in her lifetime,  stayed as far as possible away from any interviewer who wanted to get at all probing. Her story is not an easy one to tell to most journalists -- two children before the age of 15 (one reportedly at the age of 12), her father Rev. C.L. Franklin shot by an intruder in his Detroit home and in a coma for five years until his death in 1984.

A significant moment in "Amazing Grace" is C.L., after preaching of his pride in his daughter to her audience, rushing to wipe the sweat off her face while she's still sitting at the piano and singing. ("She's not just my daughter," he says "she's a stone singer.")

Was she afraid after seeing the film that it rendered America's great music gospel tradition too easy to mock or misunderstand? As I said, the possible reasons the film was withheld during her lifetime were many and various.

There's no question the finished product Elliott assembled from the usable footage is a rough piece of work. A blunt and unavoidable fact about the movie is that it has no real ending worthy of the name.

Listen to big-selling record "Amazing Grace," one of the greatest records in her amazing recording lifetime. There are all sorts of things on it that would have made a stomping and ecstatic finale.

"Amazing Grace" is too big and full to be considered a fragment, but it's too rough to be considered finished, too.

So what? When it's great -- in its first half while it shows the first night in a two night event -- it's nothing short of sublime.

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