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“Amazing Grace” pays tribute to Aretha Franklin

Any kind of film that’s been lost to the ages fascinates me. There are a few notorious ones, though most ultimately see the light of day before all is said and done. Up until recently, the 1972 concert documentary about Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace, was thought to be under lock and key. Franklin’s death led directly to its upcoming release, as you’ll see below, so there’s a tinge of tragedy surrounding the fact that we’re finally seeing it. Beyond that, though, there’s the joy at getting to watch a legend in her element, one last time. It begins screening this week for its Oscar qualifying run, before a wider berth next week, and it will likely bring in quite a crowd.

This documentary is a filmed concert, essentially. Shot by director Sydney Pollack in 1972, it sees Aretha Franklin record her gospel album in a church, over two nights, in front of a live audience. We see a tiny bit of Pollack, but it’s mostly Franklin doing her thing. What’s notable about this is how we were never supposed to see it. The footage was shot in the early 70’s, but deemed unusable. After Pollack passed away a decade ago, producer Alan Elliott made an effort to finish and screen it. That led to a moment where, on the verge of showing during the 2015 fall film festival season, Franklin sued to stop the doc from screening. Then, the movie sat still, on a shelf. Now, with Franklin having passed, her family has given the blessing for it to be shown. Pollack obviously still directs, making this a moment for fans of his as well.

Interestingly, watching this movie is an unusual experience. Chiefly, you have the sense of seeing something that was, for most of its life, never meant to be seen. That isn’t due to anything tawdry or controversial, just first issues that Pollack had in getting it put together, then with Franklin herself trying to block it. Aside from the idea that she didn’t want this screened, it plays as a time capsule and a tribute. At times, it’s a bit static and plays like a home movie, but there’s a charm to it as well. Before too long, it grows on you and wins you over. As a concert film, it works. As a time capsule, it’s something stronger and deeper. Plus, the music is just totally on point.

Oscar wise, Amazing Grace is looking to crash the Best Documentary Feature party. Depending on how the Academy feels about Franklin, it has a chance, too. The prohibitive frontrunner still seems to be Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but it’s hardly unbeatable. A parade of docs like Fahrenheit 11/9, Free Solo, Minding the Gap, RBG, Shirkers, Three Identical Strangers, and so on, they look to be the prime competition. However, a late breaking contender like this has potential. In the same way that Vice is coming on at the 11th hour, so too could this one. With some precursor attention, it may very well surprise.

Amazing Grace is going to be a real curiosity for some. Fans of Franklin will want to watch her belt out these childhood standards of hers, while cinephiles will probably want to finally get their eyes on this one for historical purposes. It all adds up to something of an event film. It’s ultimately a simple doc, but sometimes those are the ones that transcend the most. As the season progresses, the Best Documentary candidacy of this title will be one story to definitely follow along to. It has the potentially to really shake things up. Stay tuned to see what happens…

Be sure to check out Amazing Grace, beginning its Oscar qualifying run this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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