Monday, June 24, 2024

Aretha Franklin’s Long Lost “Amazing Grace” Concert Film Is Must-See Simply for the Singer’s Pure-Throated Genius


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.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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