Amazing Grace (4 stars)

Amazing Grace

Aretha Franklin makes musical history in footage capturing the recording of her landmark album

To hear Aretha Franklin's voice soaring when she was at the height of her power is an extremely emotional experience in this wonderful find: an assembly of documentary footage shot by Sydney Pollack in 1972 and 'realised' by Alan Elliott. Aretha, then 30, was the peerless Queen of Soul, arguably the voice of the century, with a string of pop and R&B hits when she decided to revisit her youthful roots; she had started singing in the Baptist church of her celebrated preacher father. The resulting live album, Amazing Grace, is still both Aretha's top-selling record and the best-selling gospel album of all time.

It was recorded over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, with the Reverend James Cleveland's exuberant community choir and a passionately engaged congregation (augmented by celebrity guests Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts). Aretha poured heart and soul into Mahalia Jackson's gospel standard 'How I Got Over', 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand', the title track et al – the spirit vocally and visibly moving her from exaltation to pain to glory, but always with poise and control. What. A. Voice.

The raw footage has taken 47 years to reach an audience because it proved impossible at the time to synchronise the sound recording to the film as shot. Ironically, it is thanks to the latest digital technology (and the tenacity of former Atlantic Records producer Elliott) that we can revel in a beautiful moment in musical history – a perfect celebration of the spiritual heritage that so enriched American popular music. This is likely to play in small picture houses and that is actually ideal. It is not a big, slick, polished production but a rough and ready, you-are-there movie. You don't want to see this on a giant screen, but in a venue where you can feel the thrilling intimacy the congregation felt.

General release from Fri 10 May.

Amazing Grace

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 27min
  • Directed by: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack
  • UK release: 10 May 2019

Documentary about Aretha Franklin’s 1972 concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, shot at the time by Sydney Pollack and realised by Alan Elliott. Digital technology has at last made it possible to sync the sound recording with the footage: revel in Aretha at the height of her power, with…