By 1971, soul singer Aretha Franklin had one of the most celebrated voices on the planet, and she enjoyed a run of success throughout the nineteen-sixties with a string of hit singles and albums, though they were with pop songs, and she felt she wanted to give something back to the church where she had learned her craft as a gospel singer. Therefore two evenings were set aside in Los Angeles to record a couple of concerts designed to be aimed at the Christian market, and she brought along some of the best musicians she could find along with the Southern California Community Choir to back her up. The results were one legendary album - and one missing film.
Director Sydney Pollack had been hired to get this occasion onto film, and all went well with a team of camera and sound crew capturing both concerts. All went well, that is, until someone asked Pollack how exactly he was going to edit all the footage together; he apparently had taken it for granted that music and visuals could be easily married, but somehow he had forgotten one of the most rudimentary aspects of filming. None of the footage had a clapperboard at the beginning of each reel, therefore lining up the elements was next to impossible with the technology available and Pollack went to his grave with this film's incomplete status as one of his great regrets.
Happily, Warners kept the footage for decades, and eventually Alan Elliott, entrusted the film by Pollack, was able to use the latest techniques to finally get the thing finished: sadly, even Franklin did not live to see this either, having died months before it began to get a proper release. Rumour had it that she had been disillusioned with the whole project, but one wonders if she would have changed her mind on seeing - and more importantly hearing - what the complete movie was like, as it was difficult to watch this and not be wholly impressed with her pipes and her way of commanding that crowd. Yes, it was more a congregation and therefore well up for it, but nevertheless.
If you do not share the spiritual leanings of Franklin and the vast majority of both night's crowds, the second evening noticeably larger and more ecstatic than the first as if word had got out in the twenty-four hours or so between them, then would Amazing Grace have the same effect? The LP was widely considered the greatest gospel album of all time, but would a sceptic, or simply someone with a different faith, be just as moved? They would be coming to this from a different angle, it was accurate to say, but the sheer force of Franklin's expressive voice was hard to deny, you did not need shots of the attendees jumping up to applaud and say amen to perceive that, though their enthusiasm was infectious. Elvis Presley famously loved gospel and recorded his own versions, but even he would find it hard to match Aretha for dedication.
She had grown up in the church, of course, and her father steps up to say a few words on the second evening, patently bursting with pride - the man who taught her much of what she knew about the form, Reverend James Cleveland, hosts the event and joins in on piano and vocals (and breaks down in tears at one point, so overwhelmed is he). But Aretha was so lauded as one of the most perfect vocalists of her age, of any age, that even the relative drabness of these surroundings, with its rather pokey church and cheap 16mm film stock, is elevated to the level of a cathedral once she sings those notes. She says very little, basically thanking everyone for being there at the end, as if she knew she was saying all she needed to say with her singing, and it is entertaining to see how the film builds from a relatively small beginning to absolute adulation from all quarters by the finale. As far as the imagery went, it did not match the joy in the soundtrack, so you would not lose a tremendous amount if you opted for the album, but the curiosity value in watching it was high.