There’s a moment near the middle of Amazing Grace — the concert film out Friday about Aretha Franklin’s live recording of her 1972 album of the same name that, to this day, is still the best-selling gospel album of all time — that I can’t get out of my mind. Standing in the pulpit of New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in Watts, California, the Queen of Soul is radiant in a white caftan emblazoned with crystals that glitter in the light and complement the sea foam green walls. As the legendary James Cleveland revs the organ with an overture that alone stirs the crowd, Franklin closes her eyes, clasps her hands behind her back, and takes a deep breath. You can tell the Spirit is in the room.
As the songstres begins to sing, and before she can make it through the first line of her rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the camera pans to a member of the congregation who shutters the way only someone who has been through something and came out on the other side can. Franklin belts, “That saved a wretch like me,” and the crowd and her accompanying choir loses all decorum. By the end of the song, everyone is spent. Cleveland turns from the piano and starts to cry. Even Franklin has to take a seat and recompose. As I watch, I’m arrested by the joy, pain, and triumph I’ve just witnessed, reminded of the redeeming powers of gospel music and the safe place the Black church once was for me.
Amazing Grace is almost 50 years in the making. When Franklin was planning her album, Warner Brothers agreed to film the session in 1972, hoping to reap similar profits to the success of the 1970 film and album of Woodstock. Sydney Pollack, who had recently been nominated for the best directing Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, signed on to direct the recording, which was done in front of a rousing audience at Cleveland’s Los Angeles-area church and with his choir, the Southern California Community Choir led by choir director Alexander Hamilton.
Filmed and recorded over two days, Amazing Grace is like a time capsule of the early ‘70s and the still-present peculiars of the Black church. From the afros and large lapels to the call-and-response, wails, and shouting of the religious tradition, the film is an unvarnished look at a world all-too-familiar to some and foreign to others. But it was never released. Pollack and his team struggled to post-sync sound with the visual recording, until now. The footage was purchased by producer Alan Elliott in 2007 and he spearheaded a restoration effort, using new digital technology, with editor Jeff Buchanan to bring the film to light.
Many will recall that the late singer sued Elliott in 2011 for using her likeness without her permission, and in 2015, she blocked the film from screening at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. But after her death last August, he screened the picture for Franklin’s family and they gave their permission for him to release it.
As Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang mentioned in his review, this is the type of film you very well could watch with your eyes closed, allowing the unmatched stylings and supernatural abilities of Franklin to transport you to new Promised Lands. But in forcing my eyes open in every moment that I wanted to clench, sway, and speak in tongues like Juanita Bynum in her legendary “No More Sheets” sermon, I saw a world I once called home.
Growing up, I was attached to my granny’s hip. Pastor of her own church, God’s Tabernacle of Prayer Church of Christian Fellowship — which she started in her living room with only her children as parishioners because the church in which she came to Christ wouldn’t allow a woman to preach — she was known in the community as a member of the Low Country, traveling gospel band Voices of Thunder and The Harmonizing Sisters. She also had a weekend radio show and I was her special co-host, reading out Bible verses. The community began calling me “Preacher Man” and I even delivered a sermon or two of my own during youth revivals. For a long time, the church was all I knew.
Watching Amazing Grace, memories came rushing back. Of the joy I experienced executing soul claps to complicate and elevate hymns. Of the awe in witnessing the Spirit overcome someone to the point they lose control of their body and “dance like David danced.” And of the pain of being told, explicitly and implicitly, by people close to me and those I’ve never met, that the queer and gender nonconforming person I was becoming wasn’t welcomed in such hallowed spaces; a happening that I’m still grappling with. But there are a number of shots of people I read as queer in the film, both in the choir and the congregation, that placed a smile on face, evidence of the ways queer people create our own relationships with God, a higher power, the Universe, or whatever we call Her.
Amazing Grace is a reminder that spirituality is deeply personal. And the music that accompanies one’s practice — for me, it’s gospel, and all things Fantasia; for you, it might be the sounds of nature, Lizzo, or Carly Rae Jepsen — should be too. That’s why Franklin, or Retha as her friends and family call her in the film, closes her eyes so much, much like all the musicians who get their start in the Black church. And that’s why I still can’t shake the core of the tradition in which I was raised, and in viewing this film, I’m becoming okay with that.
Because the ability to tap into something or someone larger than the self is indeed an amazing grace, and, for me, that’s enough.