“Amazing Grace” (2018)

Documentary

Running time: 87 minutes

Directed by: Sydney Pollack

Featuring: Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, C. L. Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir

“Oh oh Mary

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Didn’t Pharaoh’s army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

Well, Satan got mad and he knows I’m glad
Missed that soul that he thought he had
Now, didn’t Pharaoh’s army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Didn’t Pharaoh’s army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

Well, one of these nights around twelve o’clock
This old town’s gonna really rock
Didn’t Pharaoh’s army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Didn’t Pharaoh’s army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you”

– Don’t you weep, Aretha Franklin

Recently released on DVD in New Zealand is one of the best documentaries from recent memory in the film “Amazing Grace” (2018) that features mostly unseen footage filmed in the 1970s for a concert film that was essentially botched, with that footage being stored in vaults until it was cut together with its audio. In a way the 1970s was the decade when live recordings of musical artists really took off with a number appearing in theatres, making huge amounts of money so it was the obvious choice to record Aretha but from the outset it seemed like a doomed proposition even though the audio of this concert would break records.

There are many decisions that were made by the studio that ended up delaying this concert from seeing the light of day, but the one that was paramount was getting legendary director Sydney Pollack who had no background in documentary filmmaking. The entire production failed to use clapperboards or markers, making it virtually impossible to synch the resulting picture with the recorded sound. Not even lip readers, who were reportedly enlisted to sift through hours of silent film, could solve the problem. However producer Alan Elliott located the footage beginning work on reconstruction using previously unavailable digital technologies. What was unfortunate was before Franklins death she fought the release of this concert, but now it has turned into something more meaningful for fans and newcomers alike.

The past five years or so has been an excellent year for documentaries not only on streaming or DVD but also in cinemas, which is a trend that goes against what many people may have expected. However I find this to be exactly what should be expected especially with the concentration of so-called ‘fake news’ that now exists on the internet, coupled with what has been coming from the White House under the Trump Presidency. In fact there was a thought that cinematic documentaries might be a thing of the past especially with the success as well as saturation of Disney-fied blockbusters invading multiplexes, in fact audiences have been flocking to cinemas to seek out stories about real people making real differences in times and places where many others have been marginalised and made powerless by the people in charge in their respective times. Some of the great, as well as critically received, not forgetting making money documentaires at the box office are: “Wont you be my neighbour?” (2018), “Three Identical Strangers” (2018), “Jane” (2018),  “RBG” (2018), and my personal favourite “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017) with so many more. What this says about audiences is that they will seek out true stories told in the relative first person that are not only inspiring but are direct counter programming to the politics of the day as well as the lies that are being produced by a President who is not only artificial but hate fuelled. My belief as a fan of documentaries is that this genre will only gain in popularity, with the coming years being a boon as well as revealing the importance of truth in the media as well as the importance of researching decisions made by the electorate. It is no surprise that the rise in fake news, Donald Trump, racism and may other hate fuelled elements has been answered by artists creating documentaries that prove there can be positive outcomes when people choose to buck the system as well as believing in others, differences, freedom and most of all, discussion. 

“Amazing Grace” was filmed in 1972 when she recorded her gispel album of the same name, a collection of gospel classics performed over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The legendary session — which included gospel pioneer James Cleveland, his Southern California Community Choir and esteemed session players Bernard Purdie, Cornell Dupree and Chuck Rainey — was captured live, in front of an adoring congregation that, by the second evening, would include Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Franklin’s father, the Baptist minister C.L. Franklin.

With much talk about the cinema experience versus the streaming one this new documentary does prove that sometimes a communal experience in a dark room with a projection on a giant screen with great sound is the preferred option as this film comes alive in many different ways. You can feel the heat that sets beads of sweat running from the musician’s brows. As Aretha’s voice transcends this world, Pollack’s crew have the more down-to-earth task of catching ever more adventurous angles, peering up through the lid of a piano or down through the ranks of the congregation. There’s a scrappy, vérité feel to the footage as the crew capture each other on camera, scuttling around in response to the gesticulations of their director.

What is apparent is that even watching this film Franklin remains completely unknowable. The singer says remarkably little at all, she knows that it is the music and interpretation that the audience is there for. There is something refreshing about all of this especially in todays world where even the smallest of celebrities feel the need to espouse opinions of almost everything, this was a lady who knew how to speak to the masses using material that many felt was universal in truth.

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