Going to church has never been my thing. When I was a kid, I would use any excuse to get out of going. Right down to the “put the thermometer on the light bulb to fake a fever” trick. Church didn’t interest me. All that preaching, testifying, and bible verse reading. I thought it was extremely boring. Except for one thing: the music. Once the organ started playing and the choir stood up to sing, I perked up. That was the good stuff. The songs that made me want to clap along. I wouldn’t really sing though. I mainly wanted to listen to the pros do it. People like Aretha Franklin. No, I never actually got to hear Aretha sing live. She wasn’t visiting my church anytime soon. But with the new movie, Amazing Grace, I get pretty close to attending a service featuring the Queen of Soul.
In 1972, director Sydney Pollack captured the live recording of Aretha’s gospel album, Amazing Grace, as she performed at the New Missionary Baptist Church in LA. It would go on to become the best-selling gospel album of all time. The film didn’t fare so well. Due to technical problems, it was never released. Even after these issues were resolved, decades later, Aretha blocked the film from coming out. But, after her death, her family finally gave their blessing.
I’m grateful that this film was able to be salvaged. You are getting peak Aretha here. Her voice fills the auditorium wrapping itself around you. Over two nights she sings a collection of standard hymns like, “Mary Don’t You Weep”, “How I Got Over”, and my favorite here, “Wholy Holy”. There’s also an interesting mashup of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and Carol King’s ballad “You’ve Got a Friend”. Surprisingly, the songs blend perfectly together. The greatest moment is the finale with “Never Grow Old”. Aretha works the entire room into a frenzy. At one point, she’s so overcome with emotion that she has to sit down. But she gathers herself and is able to deliver a final wail, much to the delight of the crowd. And the viewers. It’s truly wondersome.
Even after remastering the film it’s still not that polished. At times the camera is out of focus. Or you can see crew members in a shot. At one point, the camera is shaking as if the person holding it was dancing along to the music. Perhaps he got caught up in the moment. I actually like that this isn’t a slick production. It feels more real and raw. And New Mission isn’t very fancy either. This a simple place where people gather for worship and fellowship. Before “mega church” became the norm. I also enjoyed the crowd reactions. These aren’t paid extras. You can tell they’re feeling Aretha and the spirit as if they’re not being filmed. A few times you catch Mick Jagger making a cameo in the pews. But he’s really just another parishioner moving to the beat.
The thing I appreciate most about this film is that it’s focused on Aretha and the music. Yes, it’s set in a church and she’s signing about Jesus, but you don’t have to be a believer in any particular religion to enjoy it. For some the message and the word of God is important. For others, not so much. But all can agree that they are moved by Aretha’s voice. This speaks to the power of music to bring all walks of people together. And the greatness of the Queen who delivers it.