Monday, November 11, 2019

Concert Doc Watch: Amazing Grace (2019)

Watched:  11/11/2019
Format:  Netflix
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1970's/ 2010's

If asked to compile a list of the greatest popular American singers of the 20th Century, I'd assume Aretha Franklin would make the top few - if not the number one slot - for much of the US populace.

We lost Franklin in 2018, and it's unclear who can begin to fill her role in the zeitgeist, but maybe it's too soon, and maybe we don't need to.  Maybe she was a singular talent.

Shot in 1972 and unreleased until the last 12 months or so, Amazing Grace (2019) is an attempt by Sydney Pollack to record and capture the experience of Franklin recording a live Gospel album at a church in Los Angeles over the course of two nights.  Backed by a local choir and supported by the Reverend James Cleveland, Franklin takes to the pulpit and - as one would expect - nails every song before her.

There's no commentary track, no titles other than those telling you we're seeing night one and then night two, no behind-the-scenes stuff to establish the film.  It just unfolds - and that's enough.

I don't think often about Franklin's habits in the studio, but here she's flying without a net - she's simply out there in front of pews and pews full of people.  And while established by 1972 and age 30, she was not yet an icon (she would achieve this by the time I knew who she was, which would have been about 8 years later).  The film does include mostly technical issues, and is raw enough that it's just showing what's happening during a performance where folks aren't particularly aware of the cameras.

Essentially, this leads to two viewing experiences:  (1) you get to witness a young Aretha Franklin, already a multi-time chart topper and consummate performer knock it out of the park, engage with an amped and ready audience, and put on a master class in musical/ artistic collaboration, and (2) there's a movie in here about guys who have no idea what they're doing trying to record a concert experience.

Originally captured for a TV special, clearly someone realized this was going badly on night one, and on night two, things get really out of control (it also feels like there's just not much coverage, which makes me wonder if crew quit).  Weirdly, this was directed, sort of, by Sydney Pollack, so you'd assume they'd have their act together, but there's a huge difference between multi-camera, multi-audio-source coverage and a controlled film set.

Still, there is coverage and someone assembled it into a watchable and, frankly, moving film.  It's a reminder of the power and grace of Franklin, as well as Gospel music - especially when in partnership with a chorus and the audience that understands far better than a bystander like myself.  The culture of the church and Gospel lays the foundation, and the film includes Gospel singers who inspired Franklin in the audience, as well as her father - the Reverend Franklin.

Also, oddly, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards are in attendance, and I wonder if this was when they were in LA for Exile on Main St. sessions.

It's a time capsule of a movie in many ways, but also fascinating to see arrive - with fashions so of the era while the core remains timeless.  And, of course, with Franklin a young woman here rather than the woman in my mind's eye.

Anyhoo... worth a watch some time.

*the populace that is not dumb kids on twitter

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