Last night we went where few have ventured– Battery Park City, to the former Winter Garden, where Meredith Publications– the now just ended owner of Time Magazine–has set up headquarters. In their beautiful sixth floor screening room, Neon Films premiered Aretha Franklin’s long lost “Amazing Grace” concert film shot in 1972 by the late great Sydney Pollack.
“Amazing Grace” is finally coming to theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, followed by a nationwide rollout next week.
For last night’s power screening, legendary music mogul Clive Davis hosted and spoke to the the crowd, which included famed songwriter Valerie Simpson, legendary drummer Bernard Purdie, who played with Aretha for 25 years and is in the film, as well as Aretha’s niece Sabrina Owens Garrett, and a couple of Aretha’s close friends, choreographer George Faison and Billy Bennett, widower of Aretha’s great manager, Ruth Bowen.
Not one, but two, pastors spoke, each of whom had done the same at Aretha’s funeral last August including Dr. William J. Barber, II.
This film has always been a flashpoint with Aretha– she didn’t want it released, and shut it down several times in recent years before she died. She either saw something she didn’t like in it, or she was unhappy with the financial situation. But with her death, the film is now here, and it must be seen, if only to show off the pure-throated genius that she possessed.
Indeed, it almost takes a few viewings to really appreciate what Aretha’s got here at age 29, in 1972. She is already 5 years past “Respect” and the glory years of Atlantic (although she was still having chart hits, one after the other). Her producer Jerry Wexler is with her, and so are the incredible musicians who toured and recorded with her including Purdie and Cornell Dupree. So it’s a gospel show rooted in popular music. Or vice versa. Take your pick. Certainly two of the highlights are Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”
But the pure gospel numbers in the 80 minute show, powered by the uber-talented Reverend James Cleveland (who died way too young at age 58 in 1991) that just take your breath away. It’s such a gorgeous sound that emanates from Aretha’s throat, it’s almost hard to believe she’s human. She is other-worldly and knows it. There’s a twinkle in her eye because this is her favorite music.