Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack, 2018): USA

Reviewed by Shayne Casso-Cloonan at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Image result for amazing grace aretha franklinIn this profound documentary, directed by the late Sydney Pollack (Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Clayton), masterfully edited by Jeff Buchanan (Her, Barry), and completed by producer Alan Elliot, the viewer gets to witness the previously lost footage of Aretha Franklin’s live 1972 concert recording of her best-selling gospel album “Amazing Grace.” In lacking the traditional interview, the film creates the feeling of watching a live concert performance, and brings us face to face with arguably one of the most talented singers of the 20th century.

Opening with the often unnoticed sounds of airplane engines and cars speeding by, the screen then brightens, and the camera frame pans over a sidewalk to illuminate the front entrance of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California. We witness the set up of the production crew and the twitchy audience as they wait in anticipation for Franklin to arrive. Known as the King of Gospel music, Reverend James Cleveland plays a key role in the musical recording while multitasking as a moderator, singer and pianist, starting off by making jokes regarding the audience’s possible affiliations with religion, then going on to introduce the Southern California Community Choir and lastly “Lady soul: miss Aretha Franklin.”

As the camera closely focused on Franklin singing, the sheer moments of unbroken concentration were enough to bring tears to my eyes; the sound of her voice seeming to stop the church audience in their tracks and then yell out in praise. Although I am not sure whether or not the cameraman’s intentions were to get a better look at Franklin, there were a series of shots that were recorded from a low angle, to me, indicating Franklin’s immense physical power as a singer. This film allows Franklin’s legacy to live on as we view her through sweat, tears, and an effort to keep faith alive.

Currently being shown at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, I would highly recommend that anyone who enjoys music to go and see this documentary as it will likely transform your sense of the musician’s creative process and overall being.

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