‘Amazing Grace’: Aretha Franklin’s legacy brought to life at ICA

Aretha Franklin performed music from her gospel album, "Amazing Grace" in a 1972-set concert film of the same name. Film still courtesy of the ICA

Vaila DeYoung, Contributing Writer

“Amazing Grace,” opened with bright and glowing aerial shots of Los Angeles during the 1970s. Aretha Franklin was at the height of her fame in January 1972, when she decided to record a live gospel album. The camera followed traffic passing by, and then closed in to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church as people filed in to listen to the world-renowned Franklin perform in front of them. 

On Wednesday evening, the ICA held a screening of  “Amazing Grace,” a film documenting the recording of Aretha Franklin’s live gospel album of the same name. 

She chose to perform the album at a church to symbolize her roots, singing in church choir as a young girl. Given the setting, and inviting participation from the audience, it allowed Franklin to deliver a genuine and powerful gospel experience to the live audience as well as to listeners of the album. 

After the film there was a discussion panel featuring musician and composer Stu Gardner, singer and performer Sam Reed and Richmond Magazine Arts and Entertainment Editor Craig Belcher.

“Aretha has what I call the anointed voice,” Belcher said during the discussion. “When you hear that voice, it just speaks to your soul. It kind of takes you apart and puts you back together.”

After recording more than 20 albums, winning five Grammys and having 11 consecutive No. 1 pop and R&B singles, Franklin decided she wanted to do something different for her next album.

“I have been in 25 or 30 different buildings where it’s almost impossible to record the band, the choir, the lead singer and the crowd noise and set the level for everybody. That [recording] was unbelievable for that time.” — Stu Gardner

Wanting to record a live gospel album, Franklin decided to open her album recording session to the public. 

Franklin and her accompanied guests opened the church to the public on January 13 and 14 1972, and the performance was to be filmed and documented by Warner Brothers.  

This album recording was Franklin’s true endurance test; each night, she performed without intermission, sweating heavily with makeup running down her face after only the first few songs.

“A lot of what we hear now is rooted in money, power and fame, you know what I mean?” Reed said. “She [Franklin] took that and she used it, and she never forgot about her foundation or her privacy. She never left the church, she never left her people and she showed that at all times.”

The original film was directed by Sydney Pollack, and it was meant to be a live concert film for television. The music and Franklin’s vocals induce chills throughout the entirety of the film; emotion radiated from her. People in the small crowd cheered, cried and rejoiced for the music as Franklin and her band gave a knock-out performance. 

However, Pollack forgot to use clapperboards, a video production device used to mark and differentiate pieces of footage and audio recordings. Clapperboards are absolutely necessary for a film, because they help the video editor sync audio with video. Because of this, the 1972 film was never released due to the impossibility of syncing the vocals with the performance footage.

After sitting in the Warner Brothers vault for decades, the 2018 film, “Amazing Grace” was realized by Alan Elliot, and had its general wide release to the public in April 2019.

Evidently, Elliot put a lot of time and care into recovering, remastering and editing the raw footage to make it a modern film that glances into an incredible moment in history. 

The cuts were quick and flowed to match Franklin’s powerful voice. The edits felt clean and polished with a clever split screen at some points that showed two subjects, often Franklin and her band behind her. 

As for the sound design, the audio sounded immaculate, as if you were really there in the church. 

The sound crew did a seamless job matching the audio to the visuals, but the raw audio recording of the performance was stunning, as it is extremely difficult to record that many different sounds in a church, and have it still sound great. 

“I have been in 25 or 30 different buildings where it’s almost impossible to record the band, the choir, the lead singer and the crowd noise and set the level for everybody,” Gardner said. “That [recording] was unbelievable for that time.”

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