‘Amazing Grace’ Documentary Shows Aretha Franklin Recalling Her Roots and Singing Gospel Music

Standing at the pulpit of a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972, Aretha Franklin — known more for hits like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” — started singing her own rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

As she sang the ode to divine deliverance, Franklin prompted members of the congregation at the recording of the gospel album to shake their heads and raise their arms.

The R&B star took on the role of a minister of music as she rendered one gospel song after another.

“You’ve got a mighty good friend in Jesus,” she sings at one point.

“Sing, Aretha,” someone in the church seats shouts.

“Amazing Grace,” the documentary about the making of what would become the best-selling live gospel album, spends 87 minutes giving viewers a chance to see the woman known just as Aretha go back to her roots. The singer, who died at age 76 last year, was first recorded singing gospel music at her father’s church at age 14.

The title track features Franklin’s unique arrangement — almost 11 minutes long — with multiple notes attached to the words “amazing,” “grace” and other words in that time-honored hymn.

“That track was completely free in terms of meter, in terms of rhythm,” said Aaron Cohen, author of “Amazing Grace,” a 2011 book about the recording of the album. “She wasn’t being confined to a two- or three-minute pop song where she has to hit these notes to fill it out. Granted, every song she did she did her way, but more so with ‘Amazing Grace.’”

Aretha Franklin interacts with James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir while recording her “Amazing Grace” album at a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972. Photo courtesy of NEON

The long-awaited documentary was delayed for almost five decades in part because of technical issues: The film and its accompanying sound were not synchronized when the recording was made. Decades later, digital technicians were able to link them, enabling the documentary directed by Oscar-winning Sydney Pollack to be released.

Now the musical mastery of Franklin’s voice is combined with a bird’s-eye view of the church setting where she recorded gospel favorites while playing a Steinway or standing at a pulpit with a large mural of the baptism of Jesus behind her.

The film captures not only the freedom with which she expresses herself musically, but the call and response between the artist and James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir, outfitted in bright silver vests.

“As a singer she was the star but, in that environment, she was also there to serve as well,” said Cohen, former associate editor of DownBeat magazine, who has seen the documentary six times and previously viewed raw footage.

Delores Klyvert, a fan of Franklin’s, said “Respect” is one of her favorites but she got a fuller view of the artist as a woman of faith when she stopped by a movie theater in Washington, D.C., on Good Friday.

“I knew about her father, her church, her religious background,” said Klyvert, a member of a multicultural nondenominational church in Richmond, Va. “It was just that it brought it to the forefront and let me actually connect with it a little better. I knew it but it’s nothing like actually seeing and hearing.”

Near the start of the film Cleveland introduces Franklin by saying “she can sing anything — anything.” But the focus for the two nights of recording and the two LPs of the original album was the genre of gospel.

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Source: Religion News Service