The star hardly says a word, barely cracks a smile and, for most of this film's 87 minutes, sings with her eyes closed in fervent concentration. It's as if Aretha Franklin is running another movie – an intensely private passion play inside her head as the cameras and microphones capture the Queen of Soul in historic, vocal transcendence: her all-gospel programs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles on January 13th and 14th, 1972.
The double LP recorded at those services, Amazing Grace, became Franklin's most successful album, going double platinum; it is still the biggest-selling live gospel album ever. But the footage shot on those days did not fare so well. Director Sydney Pollack – an Academy Award winner for the 1969 drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They but making his first concert documentary – forgot to use clapper boards to sync sound and image, a beginner's mistake. A laborious attempt to correct the problem via lip-reading failed. Even after digital technology allowed a new producer, Alan Elliott, to rescue Pollack's five-camera shoot, Franklin's murky objections to the film scuttled festival screenings as recently as 2015 and 2016.
The singer, who died in August, remains the gripping paradox at the centre of Amazing Grace, finally released from purgatory by her estate. Franklin was not yet 30 and the biggest R&B star of the era when she hit the mike at New Temple. But after a diva-worthy welcome by the Reverend James Cleveland, she enters the music like a supplicant: eyes cast down as she plays a waterfall-piano intro to Marvin Gaye's Wholy Holy and sings the first line with a high, sharp flourish, buoyed by the warm, harmonic bond of the Southern California Community Choir. This is the dawn of funk, so there is bling – the sprinkle of sparkle on Franklin's white robe on the first night; the holy-Commodores effect of the choir's silver-lamé vests. But there is natural dazzle too – the hot lights reflected in the beads of sweat on Franklin's brow as she marries Precious Lord, Take My Hand to Carole King's You've Got a Friend, recasting that secular hit as ecstatic comfort.
Amazing Grace was Franklin's return to bedrock. She cut her first single at 14 – the traditional hymn Never Grow Old – at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was the charismatic pastor. His cameo here is a jarring note: a torrent of praise for his daughter, delivered like paternal decree as if he is still the higher authority. And it is a shock, after years of imagining the cathedral-like scale of New Temple from the rapturous effect of the album, to see Aretha so alive in such sacred modesty: a converted movie theatre in the Watts section of L.A. (its doors still open today).
There are quick shots of the supporting musicians –including Atlantic session all-stars drummer Bernard Purdie and guitarist Cornell Dupree – and one of Franklin's mentors, the gospel singer Clara Ward, makes a regal appearance in a mink coat and Afro, like she's shooting a walk-on in Foxy Brown. Franklin, in turn, spends Amazing Grace in grateful retreat, entirely lost to the art and prayer of singing. An epic, closing reprise of Never Grow Old finds Franklin alone at the piano, firing improvised bursts of arcing jubilation. The choir eventually chimes in, but she is already gone – eyes shut tight – to her own heaven on earth.