“Aretha can sing anything,” Rev. James Cleveland says early in Amazing Grace. He takes a measured pause, before leaning into the microphone. “Anything.” Indeed, as Aretha Franklin’s stage presence here is largely bottled up in mannered meekness between songs, her voice serves as this documentary’s primary character. She massages notes like a master sculptor, making each melismatic flourish feel like it couldn’t exist any other way. As an important artifact of a transcendent artist, Amazing Grace is a must-hear experience for anyone who loves good music.
In 1972, Franklin decided to record a gospel album at a live venue. Back by a large choir and a full band, she performed over two nights at a Baptist church in Los Angeles. Sydney Pollack, who would go on to win multiple Oscars, filmed the entire event, including some rehearsal footage. Inexplicably, Pollack did not use a clapboard to coherently merge audio and visual. Years later, this material was resurrected and restored to its proper glory. The result is a cinematic time capsule, when Franklin held an audience spellbound with the sheer power of her voice.
The audio of Amazing Grace has been cleaned-up, and every song emerges crisp and clear. You can hear the congregation encouraging Franklin as she reaches for higher and higher notes. Bass and drums get prominently featured in the mix, giving the music a real and necessary bottom. Both Franklin and Cleveland are able pianists, and both come across beautifully. This is a very busy audio experience to take in, so it must have been a labor of love for the filmmakers to assemble it all with such meticulous precision.
Someone once said that Sam Cooke’s voice was strong enough to shake the very walls of a church. That same description applies to Aretha Franklin, who could cover a song with satin-smoothness or blow the roof off with thermonuclear abandon. She could sing anything. More importantly, she could sing anything and make it sound like it always belonged to her. Amazing Grace captures an amazing talent, in long-ago footage that only confirms her timelessness.