Unprecedented for 46 years for technical reasons long insoluble, this documentary filmed in 1972 by director Sydney Pollack shows Aretha Franklin at 29, at the peak of his art. Attention, this film is in theaters only a few days, from June 6 to 10, 2019.
Already sacred queen of soul after hanging more than a dozen hits at the top of the charts, Aretha Franklin prepares in January 1972 the recording of an album Live. This pastor's daughter wishes to reconnect with the gospel songs of her childhood.
To do this, the 29-year-old singer decides to invite herself to a church, the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. In this predominantly black neighborhood still bruised by the riots of 1965, the spokesman of Black America will sing for two days in a row, on January 13 and 14, 1972, surrounded by a choir and before an audience of faithful. An audio recording for the album is made. It will become the mythical double album amazing Grace of Aretha Franklin, and incidentally the most popular gospel album of all time.
At the same time, Warner sends a film crew headed by Sydney Pollack to immortalize the singer at work. The filmmaker who has just been nominated for an Oscar for his film We finish the horses well, is inexperienced in making documentaries. From the start, he commits a fatal error, irreparable: he omits the claps of beginning and end of each sequence. Therefore, the sound can not be synchronized with the images, even with the best will in the world, and the exploitation of the documentary is abandoned.
It will take the tenacity of passionate producer Alan Elliott and a technological feat in the digital age to achieve it, 40 years later. It was worth the wait. The performance is overwhelming and brought us tears.
In this small church of Watts, it is the Reverend James Cleveland, jovial and attentive person who receives. After the arrival by the main span of the members of the South California Choir, the reverend announces his "Sister Aretha" that a crowd of faithful of the district came to applaud. Aretha Franklin begins the service (because it is as much a concert as a religious office), with Wholy Holy from Marvin Gaye. Dressed in a long white dress studded with brilliants, she starts strong. Eyes closed, her vibrant voice of faith is of exceptional intensity. No doubt, this is sacred music. Mercury climbs.
Standing in the microphone, framed in a tight shot with this wonderful 1970s vintage photo grain, Aretha Franklin, implicated a thousand percent on the hymn What A Friend We Have In Jesushas a sweaty face under his short afro. Some members of the choir, which seems to spring in counterpoint to his singing, have tears in their eyes.
Several times, and especially on How I Got It Over, the music and the singing are so gripping, so galvanizing, and the fervor of the participants so communicative that we are on the verge of tearing ourselves out of our cinema chair to clap our hands and sing the choruses with them at 46 years of distance.
In this unassuming and bare parish invaded by cameras and sons, filmmaker Sydney Pollack filmed magnificently the general exaltation, the magic of the looks, the tears of the participants (including the reverend of whom we can guess the sobs) and even the trance the faithful, among whom we see Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.
He especially captured the expressiveness of Aretha Franklin, inhabited by titles like Mary Do not You Weep and You've Got A Friend. The queen of soul (and gospel that night) puts so much emotion on it that it's hard not to be upset when her makeup begins to flow, under the eye of a white Christ girded of a sheet, the poster of which stands above the choir.
The anthem amazing Grace concludes the first evening in apotheosis. The communion is total, the air vibrates with exaltation. The most beautiful of the prayers by the greatest of the singers, accompanied by a stripped piano, gives the creeps. Silenced for a while, the chorus flares up behind her in a "call and response" touched by grace. While she seems to have already given everything, Aretha always has more to offer: hanging on his lips for ten minutes, we are blown away.
On the second evening, shorter in editing than the first, the church receives a visitor of choice: the father of Aretha. Reverend CL Franklin made the trip from Detroit. Wearing an elegant blue suit, he says that his daughter was singing in the family room at the age of seven and started accompanying him to church for gospel at age eleven. Besides, "si want to know, Aretha never left the churchHe says, "Everything is said, by the grace of the cinema, Aretha has, for our part, filled, washed, brought up, blessed be the brothers Lumière.
Sydney Pollack's documentary Amazing Grace is in theaters just days from June 6 to 10, 2019.