Each December in Washington DC, the Kennedy Center Honors anoints five performing artists who have contributed to American life. In 2015 one of the inductees was Carole King, to whom Janelle Monáe and James Taylor sang nicely in tribute. Then on came Aretha Franklin in a floor-dragging fur coat. She placed her handbag on the piano and broke into ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’. As the Queen of Soul hollered, howled and damn near put a hole in the roof, King went forgivably nuts and Barack Obama wiped away a tear. More than 30 million hits on YouTube confirmed that here, still, was a singer who could reach parts off limits to all others in rock and R&B’s halls of fame.
The other time Franklin had that effect was in 1972 with her album Amazing Grace. At 29, the Queen of Soul revisited her gospel roots with two consecutive performances in a Los Angeles church and sold two million records. A film commemorating the event was conceived by Warner Bros as a concert movie to soar as high as Woodstock, and rake in as many dollars. The director was Sydney Pollack, then best known for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and no expert in syncing sound and music. It was never finished — ‘for technical reasons’, advises a caption at the start of its delayed release 47 years on, coyly keeping shtum about contractual roadblocks and Aretha’s ornery refusal in later life to let the footage be exhumed. Has the wait been worth it?
Amazing Grace is certainly not a formal concert documentary in the style of D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy gig from the following year. The film crew visibly skulk and scurry like a paparazzi platoon, cameras hoisted on shoulders, lenses aimed into Aretha’s personal space. And the star herself is modestly unstarlike, an unreadable tabula rasa who barely talks, smiles or emits any psychological clues. Whether at the piano or the lectern, her two modes are eyes wide open or, in passages of spiritual intensity, tight shut. The drama, of course, is all located in the larynx, which produces a remarkable display of whispered hums and ecstatic incantations.
The effort to produce this performance is written on her skin, which across the two evenings leaks beads of perspiration as globular as the jewel clusters dangling from her earlobes. At one point, her father C.L. Franklin, the Baptist pastor in whose Detroit church Aretha first sang, comes forward as she sings to tenderly dab her dry. Behind her, members of the luscious Southern Californian Community Choir, black-shirted with glistening silver waistcoats, bob up and down, lured to frenzy as the title song edges slowly towards climax. Around her sit world-beating musicians in natty dress going about their work.
Surprisingly, there are some empty pews near the back for an event that would now sell out enormodomes. The second night, which is shot and edited less conservatively, brings a wave of crescendos, punctuated by the speechifying of Aretha’s father and her warm-voiced musical director Revd James Cleveland. The few happy-clappy white faces in the congregation, aside from Pollack’s crew, include renowned devil-sympathiser Mick Jagger.
Aretha Franklin hoped that Amazing Grace would confer that level of gigawattage. Bathetically, her fleeting multiplex moment would only arrive six years later courtesy of The Blues Brothers, made by a bunch of jokers from Saturday Night Live. Let’s see if the planned biopic starring Jennifer Hudson as the daughter of a preacherman can give her posthumous screen stardom. In the meantime, this is a mighty resurrection.