On January 13th and 14th, 1972, Aretha Franklin set out to make a statement to the world grounded in where her dominance as “The Queen of Soul” originated from.
The then 29-year-old, five-time Grammy Award winner, along with director Sydney Pollack, went into New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles with five 16-mm cameras to record both a gospel album and companion concert film, Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace was supposed to be the project that cemented Franklin’s status as an undeniable force in popular music. The Afro-sporting chart topper [on-screen] and recently announced Pulitzer Prize recipient brought in the Southern California Community Choir’s crisp background vocals to accompany her anointed five-octave vocal delivery. Rev. James Cleveland stands by her side delicately delivering his sermon from behind the podium and occasionally the Steinway piano, joking that Franklin, who had released 20 studio albums by that time, “can sing anything.”
“She is the Beyoncé of 1972: the biggest thing in music at this time,” says film producer Tirrell D. Whittley, whose company, Liquid Soul Media, is handling the film’s marketing. “She didn’t have to go into a church. She decided that’s where she wanted to make this album. When you’re at that level and decide to go into a church in the ‘hood and lay down one of the greatest gospel albums of all-time, it says something about her spirit and who she is as a person.”
An unfortunate sequence of events kept Amazing Grace unearthed for the next 46 years. The film’s sound and visuals—totaling 20 hours of footage—weren’t synchronized, thanks to no clapperboard being used during production. The cameramen frequently turned the cameras on and off, resulting in unorganized streams of film and reels of sound.
“Lady Soul” wasn’t satisfied with the final version, nor was Warner Bros., the studio originally set to distribute Amazing Grace. The film was intended to precede Superfly as a double feature, but was canned in a vault. A series of lawsuits also nearly kept the film collecting dust in storage and relegated to musical folklore.
Still, the album Amazing Grace became a crowning moment in Franklin’s catalog once it was released on June 1, 1972, going double platinum and becoming the best-selling gospel LP of all-time.
Revitalizing the film stems from a chat the Amazing Grace album’s lead producer Alan Elliott had with veteran Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler in 1990. Elliott, a former Atlantic Records A&R executive and DreamWorks executive, really went on a quest to salvage the film 17 years later, mortgaging his home in Los Angeles to obtain film rights from Warner Bros.
As luck would have it, Elliott also met with someone at Deluxe Entertainment, who informed him there was digital technology available to marry the raw footage together. “It’s almost a miracle this actually exists,” Whittley said. “It just took so many things. Years and years for technology to get where it needed to be so that we could get to the point of having a film.”
Whittley came on board around 2012. He had a conversation with producer and casting director Reuben Cannon about the film, saw it and was blown away. The enterprising Florida A&M University alumnus, strategist and ordained deacon in his church met with Elliott in Los Angeles and joined the production team also including Joe Wolfe, Joe Boyd and Robert Johnson.
Whittley’s responsibility, he says, was to bring different parties together. “I had to bring the Franklin family together. We have our distributor together. We made sure that all of the other producers are collected,” he said. “A lot of it is helping to find balance between everyone’s growing concerns.”
Amazing Grace’s end result showcases Franklin in her element. While she and Cleveland both rotate on piano, drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Chuck Rainey and choir director Alexander Hamilton help provide the soundtrack. In fact, Hamilton was hired to lip sync parts but only came out with 20 minutes of content.
Once Franklin struts down the aisle in a white rhinestone ensemble and takes center stage, the spirit transposes the entire live set into a spiritual awakening. With graceful crowd control, Franklin gives her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” a feast of wails [and closed eyes], breaks a sweat on “How I Got Over,” tears through “Precious Moments” with a stellar contralto. The title track is chocked full of vibrato, runs and riffs. Franklin paces through a medley consisting of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” but the perfectionist assertively starts everything over during “Climbing Higher Mountains.”
“The professionalism of what she was doing that night was uncanny for the setting and everything that was taking place,” Whittley says. “You can feel the spirit swirling around her.”
Whittley goes on, “She had a certain level of perfectionism as an artist; she had high levels of expectations. She looked for excellence in everything she did, and she wanted excellence from this film.”
In the midst of a captivated congregation fighting tears and praise dancing, Franklin’s idol, gospel legend Clara Ward, lends her support and rejoices from the front pew. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones are spotted clapping their hands and nodding their heads to Franklin’s gut-wrenching presence.
But it was when Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s legendary minister father, stepped onto the pulpit that “The Queen of Soul” was humbled. Whittley, who describes producing Amazing Grace as “hard,” knew the project was significant when several of Rev. Franklin’s grandchildren attended a screening in Detroit, sharing with Whittley that they’d never seen their grandfather on film.
The process to get Amazing Grace before audiences, Whittley believes, was completely worth the investment. “There’s so many ups and downs I’ve been going through with this,” Whittley said. “It was a gem to find this and bring it forward.”
Whittley concludes: “As producers, we thought the film was imperfectly perfect. The imperfections of what you see connect to the perfection of Aretha’s voice. What comes through your ears creates the experience. We prefer to keep that as pure as possible.”
‘Amazing Grace’ originally premiered at the Doc NYC festival in New York City on November 12, 2018 and the film is in theatres nationwide now.