Four and a half stars

Directors Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack

Stars Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, Mick Jagger

Rating G

Running time 88 minutes

Verdict Sublime

If only you could have been there?

After watching this never-before-seen footage of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 concert, rescued from the Warner Bros vault, you’ll feel as though you were. Transcendent is the only word to describe the First Lady of Soul’s return to her gospel roots at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, backed by pastor James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir and a bunch of handpicked musicians.

While Cleveland, an old friend, works the crowd with an easy, evangelical bonhomie, Franklin stands a little apart, barely acknowledging the audience between songs. Self-possessed, almost regal in a sparkling white kaftan, she expresses herself through the music – and in this department, she holds nothing back. Franklin’s religious reinterpretation of James Taylor’s You’ve Got A Friend is goose bump material.

media_cameraAretha Franklin in Amazing Grace.

Her rendition of Amazing Grace, the song from which both the film and the best-selling album upon which it is based take their name, touches upon the divine.

There’s something even more powerful about Franklin’s performance the second night, during which she lifts the audience out of their respective seats, first with Climbing Higher Mountains and then Never Grow Old.

Sighted in the auditorium, along with Franklin’s father, Clarence LaVaughn, and 50s gospel legend Clara Ward, are Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and director Sydney Pollack, who was hired by Warner Bros to make a film of the concert. Due to difficulties in synching the audio track with the visual print, the project was eventually canned.

Thirty-five years later, Alan Elliott purchased the 20 hours of raw footage, and with the help of sound editor/mixer Serge Perron, produced this pared back 88-minute film. Blessedly free of the scourge of talking head interviews, Amazing Grace is wall-to-wall music.

Franklin repeatedly blocked attempts to release the movie during her lifetime — it’s not clear why. And this casts a slight shadow over the experience – since there’s a nagging feeling that the music legend’s wishes have been over-ridden.

But in the end, the opportunity to see Franklin give one of the greatest gospel performances ever recorded is so precious, one can only hope that her family, who agreed to its release, following her death in August last year, got it right.

Now showing

Originally published as Wall-to-wall music to lift the soul