Aretha Franklin reaches a higher calling in ‘Amazing Grace’

HOLLYWOOD, CA-Sometimes simplicity is best. For the late great Aretha Franklin, all she had to do was walk up to a microphone, tilt her head back and sing. Aretha didn’t need too much help. And the help she received usually came in the form of something higher and mightier than both you and me.

That’s the impression I got while I was watching the searing spiritual documentary Amazing Grace during the opening night of the Pan African Film Festival. Festival founders Ayuko Babu, Danny Glover, JaNet DuBois, musician Ray Parker Jr, actors Nate Parker and Leon, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, as well as former White House staffer and bestselling author Omarosa Manigault Newman, were among those in attendance to see the film.

There really isn’t anything extraordinary about the setup or the less than aesthetic-vibrant background of New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, where the concert film was shot by Sydney Pollack.

The only thing truly wonderful about this whole experience is Aretha’s magnetic voice and the Holy Ghost. That’s more than enough for Amazing Grace to make the hair on the back of your neck rise. Shot in 1972, an era of giant afros, bell-bottom polyester pants, and soul-searing music, Amazing Grace is one of those films that don’t need a whole lot of bells and whistles to convince you it’s worth investing your time in.

Aretha Franklin with the Rev. James Cleveland on the first night of the “Amazing Grace” concert film documentary. Photo courtesy of the Amazing Grace Film

Thank goodness Pollack and his Warner Bros. crew understood this and did not get in the way of the Queen of Soul recording the highest selling gospel album of all-time. It is pretty surreal that after all these years-nearly five decades ago-that Aretha’s Amazing Grace album remains the gold standard of all gospel albums.

What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that the album was recorded during a time when there weren’t any social media platforms around to spread the word about it. Back in that day, Youtube wasn’t thought of and the commercialization of music wasn’t anywhere close to what it is today, especially for black artists. Make no mistake about this, Amazing Grace came to fruition in song because of the divine vocal chops that God gave to Aretha.

It didn’t hurt, however, for Aretha to have already signed her name onto the world’s heartstrings with albums like Soul Sister (1966), I Never Loved a Man the Way I loved You (1967), Lady Soul (1968), and Spirit in the Dark, among others, by the time she decided to put on this signature live performance.

So when she walked into New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in her beautiful sequined white gown to tape the first part of the two-night concert performance, Aretha was already a musical megastar. Her status as a musical legend went to a higher plane the moment she sat down to play the piano and started singing Wholy Holy. That was enough to go home on.

What Aretha manages to do in Amazing Grace is a lot more than just sing. There are a lot of people with great, booming voices who can holler until the lights go out. Take a visit to just about any black Baptist, Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.) or Pentecostal church, and you’ll discover there are at least one or two singers who can just flat out wail with the best of them.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin singing during the “Amazing Grace” concert film in 1972. Photo courtesy of The Amazing Grace Film

Amazing Grace, however, when it was recorded, was not that kind of party. Aretha was just not any singer who could scream at the top of her lungs when she needed to artistically. There’s a lot to be said about the power and versatility of Aretha’s voice when you hear her sing secular hits such as Do Right Woman-Do Right Man, Respect, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You), Chains of Fools, and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

None of those songs compare to the raw emotional intensity that Aretha conveys when she brings the house down in Amazing Grace with What a Friend We Have in Jesus or the electric synergy she adds in Precious Lord, Take My Hand. The first evening of the two-night concert proved to be a more gut-wrenching spiritual experience than the faster-paced and more upbeat second half of Aretha’s performance.

The experience felt like watching someone get hit by a Mike Tyson one-two combo. The first night which closed with the moving Amazing Grace felt like a Tyson left-uppercut to the midsection: It literally knocks the wind out of you with all the heart-tugging, making-you-feel-like throwing-yourself-at-Jesus’ feet songs that Aretha power-brokered with the help of the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

What Aretha is able to do with the song Amazing Grace is something you can’t teach or rehearse. Dripping in sweat, Aretha delivers Amazing Grace with an intense sacredness, illuminating something greater was happening. As a result, what comes across is Aretha giving voice to the voiceless and releasing the burden of injustice heaped upon the marginalized and oppressed.

Amazing Grace
The Southern California Community Choir. Photo courtesy of the “Amazing Grace” Film

The hurt, the rage, the sacrifices, and the mind-numbing suffering of a people, seem to all come tumbling down in one swoop as Aretha belted out Amazing Grace. If you’re not moved by Aretha singing Amazing Grace chances are you don’t have much of a pulse.

That song and the album by the same name were introduced to me at a young age. I have never forgotten their impact. My mother, sometime in tearful sorrow or when she was deep in prayer, would blast Aretha’s hit song throughout the house as she sought out clarity and direction.  Needless to say, Aretha singing Amazing Grace left an indelible impression on me.

This atmosphere surrounding this concert film was not about going to church. It was an awakening. Aretha was like a vessel being used during this recording session for a greater purpose. Amazing Grace, which was brought to light by producer Alan Elliott, is not a normal documentary.

It isn’t magic, either. It is an indescribable force that is something bigger than all of us. Aretha felt it. My mother felt it. I felt it when I first heard the album. I certainly felt it when watching the one hour, twenty-seven minute-film. That counterpunch I mentioned earlier came with an overhand right punch on the second night of the concert.

I didn’t think that it could have been possible for Aretha to top what she did on the first date. It’s a good thing that the Holy Spirit does not operate within the same limited space we humans somehow maneuver in. There are no boundaries when it comes to moving in the spirit.

That’s what you see in Amazing Grace. This concert was a lot more than just “having church” for Aretha, Rev. Cleveland, choir director Alexander Hamilton, and the Southern California Community Choir. You see it when Rev. Cleveland is overcome with emotion and weeps as Aretha finishes off her stirring rendition of Never Grow Old. You see Hamilton and his choir work things out in frenzied sensation in songs like Climbing Higher Mountains and How I Got Over.

Then there is Aretha. There has been a lot said and written about Aretha (largely quiet in between singing songs) being at her best or at her “core” in recording Amazing Grace. I beg to differ. Amazing Grace was and is bigger than Aretha. So whenever you do decide to go see Amazing Grace, check out Aretha’s reflective take of Precious Memories. Then you’ll know what I am talking about.

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