|Aretha in the film "Amazing Grace" photo Rolling Stone|
"Amazing Grace" is the fourth live album by American singer Aretha Franklin. Released on June 1, 1972 by Atlantic Records, it ultimately sold over two million copies in the United States alone, earning a double platinum certification. As of 2017, it stands as the biggest selling disc of Franklin's entire fifty-plus year recording career as well as the highest selling live gospel music album of all time. It won Franklin the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.The double album was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles during January 1972. A film documenting the making of the album was set to be released in 1972, but was shelved by Warner Bros. (Wikipedia)
The film has not been seen since it was shot (and directed) by up and coming filmmaker Sydney Pollack. Sydney had just come off of "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" and have obviously been influenced by the cinema verite' style of shooting.
|Mick's Dad hanging out with his son and me|
(Mick Jagger is glimpsed, along with Charlie Watts and Billy Preston, who apparently stopped by while making "Exile on Main Street" but for some reason - none are ever in focus in the film. Every time the camera finds Mick, somehow they can never bring him into focus.)
|Sydney's film "Amazing Grace" is Amazing|
Having a dozen or so cameramen filming allowed Sydney to capture the show in its rawness. I would offer that since he wasn't familiar or used to shooting concert footage, there's some serious gaps in the footage - many out of focus shots, a sparing use of split screen that could have been utilized more often, barely any footage of the band, for example, who are amazing musicians. (Cornell Dupree – guitar, Kenneth "Ken" Lupper – Hammond, Pancho Morales – congas, Bernard Purdie – drums, Chuck Rainey – bass backed by Southern California Community Choir with Alexander Hamilton conducting.)
But the film was eventually finished by producer Alan Elliott who took it over from Sydney once he passed in 2008. Aretha blocked it from being shown for reasons unknown (going to court to stop even this version being seen). As a filmmaker, I would guess it is because she looks like she's seriously ill, has a cough - the first night of the two night concert, she didn't crack a smile, and night two she looks a little better, but at one point is literally held in place, (the way FDR was held up for his speeches) by James Cleveland.
|A still from "Amazing Grace"|
It's almost as if she wasn't well enough to be seen performing - and yet somehow she gives one of the greatest performances of all time. It's as if she channeled this performance from somewhere deep in her soul, but didn't want people to see her that way.
Aretha blocked the showing of this film for most of her life. She's clearly suffering from something; perhaps flu, or a chest cold, and looks absolutely miserable when she takes the stage. She's resplendent in a white dress covered with sequins - but since they're shooting in an non air conditioned church, everyone is soon drenched in sweat, she has to ask for water, and noisy air cooling fans were not anywhere to be seen.
The only person who comes to Aretha's physical assistance is her father Reverend Franklin, who at one point mops her face dry while she's singing with her eyes closed.
|Aretha's father mopping her face|
|How sweet that sound|
Even in his speech to his daughter, he can't help but say that she's "borrowed" her talent from others, clearly "learning from James Cleveland" from "Mahalia Jackson," and from "Clara Ward" (the woman sitting next to him, who Aretha "preferred to view strictly as his friend.") Even when her father talks about her, he can't give her the "props" she deserves - (and she fired her father as her manager) it's clear he still can't give her unconditional love.
|Aretha did not want people to see this film, or to see|
her in it the way she's depicted.
|Night two from the film|
Watching her craft a phrase, is a master class in music - in counterpoint, in harmony, in syncopation, and in soulfulness... She clearly is one of the greatest singers of all time (as if it needed to be said) but also perhaps the greatest gospel singer of all time. Not only for her ability to craft a song, but for the way she channels what she's singing from somewhere deep inside.
I've made a point of visiting the Gospel tent in New Orleans whenever I make it to the Jazz Fest and I've heard some of the greats Gospel choirs - but nothing like what is depicted in this film.
|Alexander Hamilton leads the choir|
She is so raw and real in this film, at one point she is transported - clearly in some kind of zone, where she's singing without even being aware that there is no microphone near her, calling and responding from a place deep within her heart.
Thankfully James Cleveland moves the mic in front of her. This moment is something to behold - because all of the songs are about where she is now.
On the flipside.
She sings that she longs to be in that place "where there is no age." She longs to be "back home" where unconditional love exists. She longs to be with Jesus. She longs to be in the light of unconditional love.
She sings it over and over again - but with such ferocity, such tenderness, that the audience is transported to where she is now. The queen of soul, is also the queen of gospel, and she's also the queen of the flipside.
Jennifer Shaffer and I have interviewed Aretha, as well as a number of her associates and friends on the Flipside. We spoke to Ray Charles (who appeared in my film "Limit Up" playing God) and Ray jokes about how out of focus much of the movie is - "They would have done better to have me shoot it instead!" (He can joke about that now, because, well - he can SEE the film now.)
Everyone that is part of our group has weighed in on this film, this performance - "Transcendent" "Why there is a heaven" "Timeless" "Beyond Sound" "Channeling from the Ethers" to "she's why it can be so much fun back home."
Here's an excerpt of the interview that Jennifer and I did which will appear in "Backstage Pass to the Flipside; Talking to the Afterlife with Jennifer Shaffer" (Book Three)
(Note: Asking again, later, she said she hand wrote it in 1979, and that it was later typed up, and remains in a box of "old newspaper clippings" in a distant relatives home)
(Note: I tracked down this person with an S in her name, who is her niece, and is currently overseeing the estate.) She's telling me she watched over Whitney Houston.
(Note: This is accurate as well, Aretha worked with Dionne Warwick, Mavis Staples, and Cissy Houston, who began singing with Franklin as members of the Sweet Inspirations. Cissy sang background on Franklin's hit "Ain't No Way". Franklin first met Cissy's daughter, Whitney, in the early 1970s. She was made Whitney's honorary aunt and Whitney often referred to her as "Auntie Ree". (Wikipedia)
Well that’s an understatement. And you can say hello to Sydney Pollack; he’s in our class as well. You’re always welcome to chat with us Aretha. Thanks for coming!
She went on to tell him and his associates that they were on their "way to a meeting where it would be decided that they would go to Japan." They were floored by this detail, as they were on their way to a meeting and had no idea what was in store. Yesterday Jennifer received a text message from one of his associates who was there when they met, who wrote: "We just landed in Japan. And we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."
|Dave uses Jennifer's camera for a selfie at the Chateau Marmont|
During our next session, I asked folks on the flipside about who had orchestrated Jennifer's being at the Chateau. We were told it was folks who "hang out there" including one who died there. So we asked Aretha to weigh on, and what her connection to Dave Chappelle might be and Aretha said she once "sang in his ear." (I don't know if she literally did this, or he had a dream about it). I asked "What song did you sing to Dave?"
Jennifer said "She's showing me an image of you playing the piano." I thought "That's funny - I play, but I don't know any Aretha songs except..." and I said "Does she mean "Amazing Grace?" And Jennifer tapped her nose; her way of saying "that's it."
I had uploaded a version of Amazing Grace - based on the original story of the song, how it has a flipside element to it, and posted it on youtube. By putting an image of me playing the piano in Jennifer's head, I was able to figure out what song Aretha was referring to. And it happens to share the name of this amazing film.
In the film, Aretha's version of Amazing Grace is so powerful that James Cleveland bursts into tears and has to leave the piano to sob in the seats behind her. (When he introduces the song, he mentions that when she sang it during rehearsal, he remembered what their lives were like 20 years earlier (1952) when they met. And he's overcome at the impact of her version.)
She is transcendent when singing this song - as if she is channeling something beyond time and space to accomplish what she does in the film.
Once you hear her version, you will never hear the song again without thinking of Aretha Franklin.