A late entrant into the Oscar documentary race could prove a formidable contender.
Amazing Grace, which documents the live recording of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album in 1972, had been mired in technical and legal limbo for 46 years before its dramatic and unexpected debut at the DOC NYC festival last month. Since then it has rapidly picked up steam with a last-minute Oscar-qualifying run in New York and LA theaters, earning a rapturous response from a legion of admirers—Spike Lee among them.
“One of the greatest concerts ever put to film,” declares Lee, who hosted a private screening in LA on Friday night, adding “As we know, Aretha is one of the world’s treasures—not just the United States of America, but the world’s treasures.”
There is ample evidence to support that opinion in the footage, which was originally filmed by director Sydney Pollack over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Backed by the Rev. James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir, Franklin gave an electrifying performance, singing “Amazing Grace,” “Wholy Holy,” “Never Grow Old” and other songs and hymns with unmatched feeling and intensity. At age 29, she was at the height of her vocal powers.
“It’s a spiritual, religious experience watching that,” says Lee, speaking exclusively with Deadline following the screening. “This film is historic. This documentary is part of America, part of the story of America. The church.”
The film would never have been completed without the efforts of producer Alan Elliott, who made it something of his life’s mission to get it made. Pollack captured remarkable material at that recording session—including the ecstatic reaction of the audience on hand (which included Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones). But from a technical point of view the production was a disaster—the sound was not synced to picture, making for a jumbled mass that was almost impossible to sort out.
Elliott says the original production team reached such a point of desperation that they hired the choir director, Alexander Hamilton, “to be the lip reader”—trying to reconnect audio to image. When that failed, the Warner Bros. project was shelved indefinitely. Sydney Pollack shifted his attention to other priorities.
“He was just about to finish Jeremiah Johnson. He was just about to do The Way We Were, so he had his own thing going on,” Elliott tells Deadline. “This [Amazing Grace production] was a mistake that I don’t think he was very proud of.”
But as the decades passed—and the “Amazing Grace” album became the top-selling gospel record of all time—Pollack clearly never forgot about his scuttled film. Collaborating with Elliott, who had previously served as a producer at Atlantic Records, Aretha’s label, the pair made notes on realizing the unfinished project. That was in 2007, a year before Pollack’s death from cancer.
“Sydney went to [Warner Bros.] and said, ‘I want Alan to finish the movie,’” Elliott recalls. “He did that right before he died. And that was a really powerful thing.”
Elliott obtained the reels of film in a quitclaim deed and Deluxe Laboratories stepped in to sync the original footage, finally allowing an edit to begin. The producer was all set to unveil the documentary in 2015 when another major obstacle appeared: Aretha Franklin didn’t want it seen. She successfully sued to keep it from exhibition.
“It was a sad day. It was a confusing day,” Elliott admits, noting Franklin had multiple motives for blocking the film’s release.
“She was a person who moved forward and especially knowing that she had been sick with pancreatic cancer for as long as she was, how much you want to look back on those days and feel your own mortality might not be what she had in mind,” he comments, sharing his belief that Franklin had originally hoped the documentary would launch her on a film career. “I really do think that she was upset that they messed it up in 1972. I think that she wanted to be a movie star.”
After Franklin’s death in August, the producer screened Amazing Grace for the Queen of Soul’s family, and the estate gave its blessing for the documentary’s release.
“Amazing Grace is the heart and soul of Aretha Franklin,” Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, said in a statement released by Neon, which acquired the film for theatrical distribution in a deal announced on Friday. “This film is authentic and is my aunt to her core. Our family couldn’t be more excited for audiences to experience the genius of her work and spirit through this film.”
Elliott says Neon will mount a formal release of the film in March 2019, commenting, “I think it’s going to go pretty wide.”
In its decades-long journey to the screen, Amazing Grace has arguably assumed even greater emotional power, akin to coming across a long-lost time capsule. Yet the music as delivered by Franklin is timeless, resonant of deep faith and vibrating with the importance of the church to the African-American experience.
Asked why he has become a champion of the film, even though he was not involved in the production, Spike Lee says simply, “Who’s the film about? That’s all you need to say.”