“She can sing anything. She can sing Three Blind Mice. Any-thing,” the Reverend James Cleveland tells the congregation gathered at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles. It’s January 1972, and Cleveland is welcoming the congregation to the 2-day recording that Franklin is about to begin — a recording that will go on to become the best-selling album of her mighty career.
The late Cleveland, who died in 1991, was the best person for the job of introducing Franklin and setting the scene for the recording. As Franklin’s father — he, too, no longer with us — will later relay towards the end of the session, Cleveland taught Franklin all she knew about gospel, in the living room of her youth. He worked with the singer, who was 29 at the time, on the arrangements and titles for what would be Amazing Grace.
The documentary, the visual accompaniment to the album, Amazing Grace has been a long time coming. Like, 46 years coming. Director Sydney Pollack was enlisted to record the session. As legend goes, he didn’t use clapper boards and so that made editing the raw footage rather difficult. The footage was left to gather dust in a Warner Brothers’ vault, leaving the visual images of the incredible album unseen. When Pollack died, producer Alan Elliott snapped up the rights. But when he said he wanted to go ahead with producing the film, that’s when a lot of the tension arose. Franklin, it’s believed, blocked the release legally because she was left out of the initial move to release it.
But her estate has now given the film the blessing to be released. It’s a joy that it is now something we get to re-discover about Franklin, just a few months after her death. Yes, the album exists and will forever be etched into music history. But seeing how it was recorded — well, that’s just another experience entirely. You’re there among the congregation in a small church – with its kitschy blue walls and mural of arms-outstretched Jesus, walking out of water. It’s not an immaculate grand cathedral, it’s a church of the people. When not playing at the piano, Franklin stands behind the pulpit, and you can watch as the spirit moves through her — through her mouth, through her cheeks, through her eyes. Even though the rest of her body doesn’t move much, her face is coated in sweat. It’s a testament to the power that is coursing through her.
It’s only right at the end of the last song that her father, Reverend CL Franklin, gets up to wipe the sweat off her face. It’s a moment you think, ‘about time,’ but it’s also really telling that it would be him to do it. He is the foundation of her faith. He has guided her path to religion, and yet he is still marvels at the way she walks.
You see the impact her voice has on everyone there — on the congregation, some of whom shiver and shake, or get up and fall down in the pews; on the Southern California choir, who stick their hands in the hair, and whoop and call out to her with each note she hits; on the reverend, who, though he spent her formative years singing with her in her family living room, still holds his head in his hands in awe at what he hears, what he sees.
Wesley Morris writing in the NYT, advocated for Amazing Grace to be regarded in the vein of Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I endorse. I also would want as many fans as possible to see this documentary. The words Franklin sings, the gospel stories she tells through the lyrics, they are meant to be seen. It’s theatrical, in the deepest sense. It’s no coincidence the church in which she stands was once a movie theater.
It’s beautiful. It’ll wreck you and build you all the way back up again. It’s salvation and more.
Her father tells the congregation, which by the end of the recording now includes us, the viewer, the story of a woman he met at the dry cleaners one day, who told him she’d be happy when ‘Retha, at the time established as a successful pop singer, returned to the church. He tells us what he told her: she never left the church. This doc is visual confirmation she could never leave it – just as it never could never leave her.
To that, I would say, amen.
Images courtesy Al’s Records and Tapes
Amazing Grace debuted at DOC NYC and will be have a wider release next year.