Aretha’s Amazing Grace

Just in time for Christmas, a recap of what was the most talked about documentary of 2019. #arethafranklin #queenofsoul #gospel

After the passing of Aretha Franklin back in August of last year, I had the opportunity this year to see the long lost footage of the recording of the Aretha Franklin double album, Amazing Grace, over 47 years after it was recorded. It was simply jaw dropping perfect, a rare look at not only Aretha, but the heart of the Black Baptist church.

After my mother’s passing last month, numerous delays kept her from even getting cremated. I decided a couple of Sundays ago, before I was even able to finish the paperwork for the coroner, to watch the film again and listen to the soundtrack, which has given me some peace and hope during a truly terrible personal family drama.

Still image of Aretha Franklin, head shiny from sweat, during the filming and recording of Amazing Grace.

Sydney Pollack, an actor and director who was a few years away from winning Best Director and Best Producer Oscars for Out of Africa, filmed Aretha, her childhood mentor the Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir over the two days of recording. It was shelved for decades due to audio synching problems, and almost shown this decade by Alan Elliott, a music producer who had worked with many Atlantic Records artists, including Phil Collins, En Vogue and Debbie Gibson, among others. Elliot actually mortgaged his home just to get the film produced.

” I say with pride not only is Aretha my daughter, ‘retha is just a stone singer!”

The Rev. C. L. Franklin

Franklin herself was the reason behind the film being blocked, though no one knows to this day exactly why. Her reasons were her own, and should not be dismissed. However, shortly after the Queen of Soul’s death, the film was screened for her family, who, according to reports, desperately wanted the public to see this very special and very personal side of Aretha.

(l-r) Franklin and the Reverend James Cleveland, her childhood piano instructor.

Academy Award 2019 qualifying theatrical runs in New York City and Los Angeles were met by such enthusiasm as to defy precedent, even with no promotion being done by the film’s new distributor, independent Neon. It had broken records for ticket sales for any film in some theatres, with additional screenings being added to keep up with demand, which, unlike most indie films, was seen primarily by families, people over 50 and Blacks.

The film, though not a box office juggernaut in 2019, was a huge critical success, scoring a 94 out of 100 on the site Metacritic. For those of you who did not get an opportunity to see it in theatres, in is now available for streaming on Hulu, and more than likely your local library has a copy for free loan. It also simply remains the best ever visual representation of what we had with Aretha: that we were not just blessed, but divinely favored.

The cover of the Amazing Grace reissue from 1999.

Aretha has of course graduated to glory after a long battle with cancer. Even though no longer part of this mortal coil, we have a selection of recordings right here over the next hour to hopefully keep you wanting more. All tracks are pulled from the two days of recording, and presented in a continuous sequence.

And yes, all of the hurdles have finally been cleared, and I too get to lay my mother to rest. I’ve said it so many times before, but this time is at my most personal: thank you Aretha.

Audio selections from Amazing Grace

  • Opening Remarks (Rev. James Cleveland)
  • On Our Way (Southern California Community Choir)
  • Aretha’s Introduction (Rev. James Cleveland)
  • Wholy Holy
  • What A Friend We Have In Jesus
  • How I Got Over
  • Climbing Higher Mountains
  • God Will Take Care Of You
  • Old Landmark
  • Closing Remarks (Rev. C. L. Franklin)
  • Precious Memories (with Rev. James Cleveland)
  • My Sweet Lord (short instrumental finale)

Love to you all, and Merry Christmas.

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
Host, Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher and Writer

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