Released: 29th August
Seen: 1st September
In 1972, Aretha Franklin was indisputably one of the biggest artists on the planet. With massive hit songs like Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Think, Aretha could lay claim to being the greatest vocalist of her generation. She was an artist so talented that she managed to record a cover version of an Otis Redding song (Respect) and do it so well that we now associate that song with her rather than him. She was one of the greatest artists in the world up to her passing in August of 2018… and then, shortly after her passing, a documentary about one of her albums was released to universal acclaim by critics and while I get that, I have some problems.
Amazing Grace is a concert film showing the two-day recording session for Aretha Franklin’s hit album of the same name. This album would go on to be the highest-selling album in Aretha’s career and still holds the title of highest selling gospel album of all time. As the movie goes on we watch Aretha pouring her heart and soul into a performance that would be one of her greatest. She did this in a small church in Los Angeles that appeared to only seat a couple of hundred and Aretha commanded the stage as though she were performing to millions. Every song seems to pull her very life from her body, at once intense and effortless. She barely moves from her podium and almost looks like she’s barely trying, and then you see how much she’s sweating and focussing on getting every note just right and it’s a masterpiece of focussing where her energy should go.
The hard part about critiquing this film is that every criticism one could level at the film has a very simple rebuttal. I could sit here and critique the film’s look, with framing that would barely be acceptable if you were filming a school play… and then Aretha opens her mouth, lets pure magic come out and my critique is invalid. I could sit here and critique that the film did nothing in the 40 years since to elevate this beyond a basic concert film… and then Aretha opens her mouth and the sky parts, a single beam of light shines down on her as she sings like you’ve never heard before and my critique is invalid. I could bring up how the only time Aretha talks is at the end and the rest is listening to men talk about her… and then Aretha opens her mouth, does the one thing she’s there to do and my critique punches me in the face for even bothering to try.
While there are some serious issues with the film on a visual level, they all seem pointless when you hear Aretha sing and I suspect that’s kind of the intent. They don’t need to try to make an interesting documentary or have any visual style, why bother when we have Aretha Franklin sounding better than she’s ever sounded before? But here’s the problem, as good as Aretha sounds in this film (and oh lord does she sound good), I could hear this any time by just buying her gospel album. Hell, I don’t even really need to buy it, the album is on Spotify and I can listen to it as many times as I want. All I’m doing by watching the movie is getting the visual of Aretha as she’s recording the album and as it turns out, that’s something she didn’t want me to see.
Part of why this film took over four decades to come out was a simple error, one that every film student alive should take note of because it can seriously mess things up… apparently, they didn’t bring a clapper board with them which meant that they couldn’t sync the sound properly. A clapper board makes syncing easy, without one it can literally hold a film up for decades and so it sat in the Warner Brother’s vault until it was pulled out and new technology allowed them to fix it… and then Aretha sued them to stop them releasing the film and THAT is where I have a major issue. Maybe it’s just me, but if the person the film is about sues multiple times to prevent the film from being released then maybe we just let the film stay unreleased. This film didn’t add anything to the conversation, it didn’t give us new insight into her process, it’s the visual that goes with the audio we already know and once you’re aware that Aretha never wanted this released and that they basically waited until she died to get it onto the screen… it kind of ruins some of the magic.
Amazing Grace is certainly a great soundtrack, the performance by Aretha is great and it’s lovely having a visual record of one of her greatest albums… but it’s not a visual record that does anything special, it doesn’t dare add anything to the conversation, and the person it’s about did not want it to be released. The pure power of Aretha’s voice can overcome a lot, but it makes it hard to think of this movie as anything more than just OK in the grand scheme of things. I’m glad I saw it; I just wish they’d shown Aretha the respect she deserves. The album itself is a 5/5 because it’s Aretha Franklin and she is absolutely incredible in every way… but the film making, the lack of focus and the behind the scenes stuff makes this film so for me to love.