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AMAZING GRACE: Even More Glorious Than I Expected

Opening today at a theater near me:
AMAZING GRACE (Dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack, 2018) 
This Aretha Franklin concert film, finally released after 46 years of legal wrangling and technical issues, is even more glorious than I expected it to be.

I had more than an inkling of its wonder as I’ve heard the live recordings, released on the 1972 Grammy-winning album, Amazing Grace, many times, but actually seeing the Queen of Soul at the height of her power, performing her vocal gymnastics, backed by Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir is a mind-blowingly emotional experience for which I wasn’t quite prepared.

The audience I saw it with at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival a few weeks back definitely agreed as they acted like they were at a real live Franklin show. They rapturously applauded after every song, and sometimes even during songs when the passion of Franklin’s unbelievable belting was hard not to respond to with loud clapping.

The footage of the original real live Franklin show was shot by Sydney Pollack over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The shoot well wonderfully, as evidenced by the resulting we have here, but Pollack failed to use clapperboards, which assist in synching visuals with sound, so it took decades before the problem could be solved via digital technology.

Former Atlantic Records A&R man Alan Elliott, who bought the film rights in 2007, had the sound remastered, and, with editor Jeff Buchanan, cut this pleasing 90-minute concert movie out of 20 hours of raw footage.

Meanwhile, Franklin sued to block the film’s release multiple times for reasons that differ in just about everything you would read about the film but seem to all come down to money.

But all that background aside, the film, that was “produced and realized by” (that’s an actual credit) Elliot, is one of the most joyous musical movies I’ve ever seen. Above I’ve called this a concert film rather than a music documentary as it’s a straight-up collection of performances from two nights, with only the context of opening and ending sum-ups. In a documentary there would be interview segments, and explanations to things like how it is that Mick Jagger came to be in the back of the church, but in this live documentation, Jagger’s just there dancing along with the rest of the congregation.

Too many highlights to list here (just basically look at the song listing and see all the highlights listed), but I was particularly moved by the 29-year old Franklin’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” her leading the choir through the rousing AF gospel standard “Old Landmark” (this is the song that James Brown performs in THE BLUES BROTHERS with the same choir btw), and her sweet sequeing of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” into Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” All show-stopping stuff. 

Rev. Cleveland should be also be noted as he confidently conducts both evening’s programs and adds his baritone vocal throughout.

For me, AMAZING GRACE is already up there with such concert film classics as STOP MAKING SENSE, THE LAST WALTZ , and GIMME SHELTER. It’s a shame Franklin never made peace with the production before she passed last year, and that Pollack was never able to get the film together before he passed in 2007, and that it took almost half a century for it to see the light of day (or darkness of a movie theater), but it’s here now and it’s a glorious must see. Even if you’re not religious (I’m not), or don’t like gospel (I like some), it’s still powerful enough to make an atheist say “Amen.”

More later…

Full Frame 2019: Day Four

The fourth and final day at this year’s Full Frame may have been my favorite. That’s largely because of the Closing Night film, but I’ll get to that below. Here’s some takes on the films leading up to that. 

Avi Belkins’ MIKE WALLACE IS HERE started off my day. It’s yet another biodoc (not that I’m complaining – I love biodocs) of a famous figure told through the testimonials of family, friends, and admirers, and a large supply of footage, video, and photos. This time, legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace gets the treatment and we are taken through six decades of the man’s work, taking us beyond his best known work as the co-host on 60 Minutes.

I was unaware that Wallace, before he became one of the most feared TV journalists, had been an actor, a game and variety show host, and a commercial spokesman for many products including Parliament Cigarettes, something that came back to haunt him. I also didn’t know about the mid ‘50s late night interview show, Night Beat, which, from the clips shown here, looks like a ginormous influence on every hard-hitting interview shows.

I enjoyed all the bits from the many famous interviews he conducted throughout his career, the most notable being Salvador Dalí, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Streisand, Malcolm X, the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), and the eight U.S. Presidents he interviewed from J.F.K. to Bill Clinton – there’s even a snippet of a piece with a young Donald Trump, who says he’s not going into politics.

I would’ve liked Belkins to have gone deeper into Wallace’s suicidal dark period, touched on THE INSIDER, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about a controversial 60 Minutes segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower (Wallace wasn’t happy with how he was portrayed), and maybe a little something about his son, Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace, who is only mentioned in passing. Nevertheless, it’s a fine primer to the life of a television icon with a lot of choice cuts from his illustrious career. I can’t really say it’s another RBG or WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, but there should still be an audience out there for it.

Following that was Kenny Dalsheimer’s YOU GAVE ME A SONG: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF ALICE GERRARD, a portrait (yep, another biodoc) of the Durham-based folk singer Alice Gerrard. 

The lovingly crafted film takes us through the multi-instrumentalist’s history and love of traditional music largely through interviews with Gerrard, her family, a score of fellow musicians, and mostly photos as precious little footage exists from her early years.

Gerrard’s marriages to Jeremy Foster and Mike Seeger (both musicians) are explored, but it’s partnership with Hazel Dickens, who performed with her in the Black Creek Buddies, that is focused on the most. The duo battled sexism, and injustice while carrying the folk/country/bluegrass torch forward. In the ‘80s, Gerarrd extolled the values of her musical loves by becoming the editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald, a magazine devoted to trad tunes. 


YOU GAVE ME A SONG is a touching tribute to an extremely talented lady, whose name, and music I’ve heard often but never knew her background. It’s as insightful as it is a toe-tapper, but more importantly it’s a film festival crowd pleaser. Even if you don’t like this kind of music, it’s must see. 

Finally, the Closing Night Film that I mentioned above was Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s AMAZING GRACE, about Aretha Franklin’s legendary performance at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972. More a straight-up concert film than a probing doc, the movie is even more glorious than I had expected. 

Since the film will be released in my area next week, I’ll wait until then to post a review, so I’ll just leave you with the trailer right now. Watch it and I bet you’ll want to see it. If you don’t, I’ll just assume you don’t possess two ears and a heart. 

So that’s Full Frame 2019. I had a great time and saw some great docs. Of course, I always do at this Festival – that’s why I have gone every year for over a decade. I’m already looking forward to next year.

More later…