A few months ago, Aretha Franklin was alive and blocking the release of “Amazing Grace,” a 1972 concert film companion to her best-selling album of the same name. Sydney Pollack shot it, and then put it away. “Amazing Grace” has been sitting in a vault for 46 years for a variety of reasons.
The reasons were not about money. Aretha had been offered a lot of money by Allan Elliot, who bought the film from Pollack in 2008. She just didn’t want it out there. She had her reasons. I have texts from her about it when she stopped Elliot from showing “Amazing Grace” at Telluride and Toronto in 2015.
Elliot, of course, went to Aretha’s funeral and presented his case to her family. Niece/executor Sabrina Owens let him screen it for 40 people, all of whom loved it. Look, Aretha is gone. She didn’t leave a will. She knew this would happen.
So “Amazing Grace” finally screened Monday night at the SVA Theater. Al Sharpton showed up. Chris Rock came with his girlfriend. (“He won’t do the red carpet,” she cracked, “he’s not wearing his make up.”) Owens came with her husband, and with first cousin Vaughn Franklin and his wife. Otherwise, except for me, Aretha’s publicists, and Sharpton, no one in the theater ever knew Aretha. If you did, no meant no.
Still, her performances in this concert film are just glowing. She opens her mouth and angels fly around. Pollack made a record of her extraordinary gifts. They deserve to be seen. So, too, does Reverend James Cleveland, her childhood friend, who appears with her along with the Southern California Community Choir. Can you imagine– those people have had to wait 40 years to see themselves on screen!
In the audience was Aretha’s drummer, famed Bernard Purdie, who played on so many classic Atlantic Records sessions. At that show, Aretha was 30, Bernard was 33. It was a lifetime ago. That same year, Aretha had major hits with “Don’t Play that Song for Me” and “Until You Come Back to Me” on the pop charts. That’s how versatile she was. No one noticed that “Climhing Higher Mountains” is basically “Don’t Play That Song” with different lyrics.
“Amazing Grace” is a must have CD for anyone who doesn’t have it. Soon the DVD will be, too, Elliot doesn’t have a distributor yet and thinks he’s going to force this movie into the Oscar race on November 13th. He should wait for next year. It’s waaaay too late for that. I hope he takes that unsolicited advice seriously. “Amazing Grace” has waited 46 years, it can wait one more.
The right distributor will have an art house hit with “Amazing Grace.” And even though Aretha herself spoke to a judge to get her restraining order in 2015, it’s time to let her fans have this experience. She was the greatest singer of our lifetime, and her legacy will never end.