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amazing grace.jpg
amazing grace

DIRECTOR: sydney pollack and alan Elliot


REVIEWER: lyall carter


Singer Aretha Franklin performs gospel songs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972.

I stepped into the cinema knowing only a smidgen about Aretha Franklin. I knew that she was a famous soul singer with a hard upbringing but that was about the most of it. I wasn't prepared for what I encountered in that darkened cinema. It shook, it moved, it enlightened my very soul. 

Amazing Grace documents Aretha Franklin’s 1972 two-night Gospel music performance in the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles. Warner Bros. enlisted Oscar winner Sydney Pollack to film the event that was also being recorded and subsequently became the biggest selling live gospel album of all time. The film dogged by technical and legal troubles sat in a vault somewhere for years. Now we finally get to witness this cinematic wonder.

Amazing Grace is the hardest movie I've ever had to review. Its difficult because the film completes a rare feat by transcending its cinematic form into something else entirely. Its not a typical documentary with interviews bookended by real footage or with a nice neat narration bringing everything together. 

Its the raw but edited footage of Aretha Franklin's Gospel music performance over two nights is just that: its the uninterrupted performance of a singer that sounds more angelic than human. Her voice booming, and powerful in one breath soothes the soul and in another is goose bump inducing. 

But its more than just a performance, divine though it is. Its an encounter with a people. From the church to the choir to Rev. James Cleveland, through Amazing Grace we have a window into the world of the African American community in 1972. From a historical standpoint the fact that this exists both in capturing Aretha Franklin's performance and as a historical snapshot of life in an African American community is a miracle in itself. 

The piece of the film that got me, that had me weeping so that I wasn't looking for a tissue but a towel, was a comment that Rev. James Cleveland made before Aretha sang Amazing Grace. "Years ago we never would have thought that God would have brought our people this far." Rev. James Cleveland breaks down in tears as Aretha sings Amazing Grace.

At that point you get it. You get why Gospel music is such a vital part in the lives and culture of African Americans. It perfectly encapsulates all the pain, suffering, and hope, even if its distant, of a whole people. Its at that point that you finally realise: in Amazing Grace you encounter the divine. 

A miracle of a film that transcends its cinematic form. In Amazing Grace you encounter the divine. 


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