‘Amazing Grace’ Serves As An Important Record Of American Culture

Courtesy of NEON
Courtesy of NEON

It is a remarkable experience to sit back, relax, and take in a small piece of history. With Amazing Grace, audiences are treated to an amazingly powerful performance from Aretha Franklin as she records her first gospel album. It is, in every way, a record of American culture that has been preserved and, now, shared for the masses.

Filmed in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California, this concert film has to just be taken in as it was filmed and edited. It isn’t a fancy or sophisticated production. The cinematography is lopsided and sloppy, sometimes even dizzying. The editing is occasionally unclear, quickly moving between takes and scenes during the performance of each song as they try to get the recording just right.

The performance takes place over two nights and the crowd there to see Aretha Franklin in person is energetic. The group on the second night is even more active as people return from the day before and new faces show up. Friends and family of Aretha are in the audience. Even Mick Jagger pops up.

While there are many songs, along with plenty of dancing, “Amens,” and moments of profoundly expressed spirituality, the highlight is Amazing Grace performed by Franklin. It is beautiful.

What is especially interesting about this film is how it portrays Aretha Franklin. She is there to do a job. She is not really performing a concert, although it is a show for those in attendance. Franklin is mostly straight-faced, focused on getting the recording right, and we do see her stop to start over and re-record.

The energy, aside from Franklin’s powerful singing, really comes from those in attendance and the choir behind her.

This is footage that sat in Warner Bros. vaults since 1972 and never released due to technical and release struggles. When the footage was purchased from Warner Bros., two releases were attempted in 2011 and 2015, but both were met with lawsuits suits by Aretha Franklin for appropriating her likeness without expressed consent. It was only until after Franklin’s death last year that the film could move forward.

The Good: 

Amazing Grace is a powerfully energetic snapshot into a time and culture of American history. To understand and appreciate it best, it has to be taken in just as it is without too much criticism. It is far from perfect, but Franklin’s performance here speaks for itself. It’s no wonder that the album this film revolves around went on to become the best-selling gospel album of all time.

The Bad:

While the film should be taken, and appreciated, for what it is, it’s still difficult to overlook how sloppy the camerawork and editing is. Obviously, the footage was salvaged from having sat around untouched for decades. But it still speaks for itself, and much of it would’ve been the same had it successfully released in 1972.

The Takeaway: 

With a cup of coffee in hand, Amazing Grace deserves to be appreciated and gawked at. Aretha Franklin earned every title and award she received in life. In death, it’s important to continue to recognize her contribution to American music and culture, and this film does exactly that.

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