EXCLUSIVE The Toronto Film Festival may be announcing this morning a screening of “Amazing Grace,” an unseen performance doc about Aretha Franklin filmed by Sydney Pollack in 1972 in Los Angeles. (UPDATE The screening was announced. Telluride will also show the film. )
I say “may” for many reasons: the film’s provenance is still up for some discussion. Franklin has not wanted it to be released, and has fought it at every level. She may still fight it, that part is unclear.
Alan Elliott, a lecturer at the Herb Alpert UCLA School of Music, told me a few days ago that he he owns the rights. There’s a long back story about how Pollack made the movie, and papers Franklin may or may not have signed 40 years ago, etc. But the main story now is that Elliot managed to get the audio and video synched up of this historic performance, and he’s planning on showing it in Toronto and at Telluride.
Thanks to Elliott, I’ve seen “Amazing Grace.” It runs about 87 minutes and is all music taken from Franklin’s huge bestselling album of the same name. All of the music is spiritual with the exception of an astounding rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
There’s also a little surprise: Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts sat in the very small audience at the church for one of the filming days. They aren’t seen talking to anyone, or vice versa, including Franklin. But they are very much on camera.
Reverend James Cleveland accompanies Franklin on piano, although Aretha herself plays quite a bit. She’s 30 years old, has already had innumerable hits, and is sensational. At one point, her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, gets up and speaks about her. She’s 30; he’s 57. It’s an incredible historic moment. She is at her greatest height artistically (although she’s pretty damn good right now).
For her own reasons, however, Franklin has blocked this film’s release over the years. Her attorney Arnold Reid got a temporary injunction against Elliot in 2011. In 2012, he told a Detroit TV station that Franklin would have to approve the film’s release. “(You) still can’t use somebody’s name and likeness for commercial purposes without compensating them,” Reid said. “They own it, but they can’t exploit it commercially without her permission.”
So what’s next? Keep refreshing. Franklin is traveling, doing dates in Oakland CA and Las Vegas, and can’t be reached yet.