Sunday, Apr. 7
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded a live album of gospel classics at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the accompaniment of the Southern California Community Choir. Though Sydney Pollack was hired to make a concert film about the record, technical difficulties prevented a commercial release for decades. Finally, after forty-seven years, Amazing Grace has been completed, landing at select theaters and Full Frame, where it was the closing-night film on Saturday. It’s a dazzling document of the Queen of Soul at the height of her career.
The daughter of a Baptist reverend, Franklin grew up playing the piano and singing in church. Amazing Grace was a touchstone, a return to her origins. The audio version was a huge commercial hit, selling two million copies, but the film shows us a fuller picture of the virtuosic majesty and embodied, sweaty passion that characterized Franklin as a performer.
Mixing gospel with elements of secular jazz and soul, Franklin’s singing in the church highlights the artificiality of the divide between these genres in the African-American musical tradition. If Franklin’s voice is enormous and soaring on record, on film, that largesse is even more apparent as we see the small interior of the church and the audience so close to the stage. The intimacy of the footage also allows us to see the audience’s visceral reactions to the music.
Another aspect of Franklin’s performance that the film highlights is her extraordinary style, charisma, and poise. At rehearsal, she wore a Pucci dress and a red coat covered in gold chains; during the performance, she wore an angelic white tunic spangled with sequins. As beads of sweat pour down Franklin’s face, smudging her mascara and blue eye shadow, the presence of her voice only grows more powerful. Amazing Grace is an overdue testament to her musicianship, as well as an almost tactile document of the feeling of an era.