November 22, 2019 – This movie is based on film footage and audio recordings made at a Baptist church in Watts, Los Angeles in 1972. Award-winning director Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott and a Warner Brothers film crew were on hand to record the live recording session of legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin returning to her gospel music roots in front of an adoring audience, which included her father.
Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” got her start as a singer in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, C.L. Franklin was the minister of the church. We see Pollack, C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin, the film crew, the Southern California Community Choir, directed by Alexander Hamilton, and James Cleveland, singer and piano accompanist, all there at the church as Aretha Franklin records her Amazing Grace album, said to be the top selling gospel album of all time.
While health problems would plague Franklin later in her life, this film shows her at age 29, at the height of her amazing vocal powers. While most of the music is highly stylized, and too slow for my taste, the power of Franklin's vocals, and her mesmerizing effect on her audience, is evident. The song I liked best is one also featured in the Blues Brothers movie (which also featured an Aretha Franklin performance of another song, “Think”) is “Old Landmark” (also known as “Let Us Go Back to the Old Landmark”). That song has a very fast beat.
It is also nice to see and hear Aretha's father, who makes a speech about his daughter, defending her against critics who said she was not religious enough. It is also nice to see director Pollack (“Tootsie”) in action. In one scene, you can see him pointing at the audience, to get a cameraman to turn his camera in that direction. Usually, directors work behind the camera. In this film, Pollack is on both sides of the camera.
The sound quality of the film is good. Ironically, that is one of the main reasons it took so long to get this film released. It proved very difficult to sync the sound to the film. Perhaps 21st century technology made this easier. Aretha Franklin herself reportedly sued the film's distributors twice for using the footage without her permission, stopping its release. Franklin's family finally allowed the film's release after Aretha's death last year.
In addition to seeing a young, powerful Aretha Franklin in action, this film is also like a time capsule of the clothing and hair styles of 1972. The film includes performances from two different sessions. The second session is the one where Aretha's father addresses the audience. Reportedly, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones band were in the audience for the second session. Special mention is made of Clara Mae Ward, another legendary gospel singer, who attended the session. She died the following year.
I sure do like Aretha Franklin's popular music recordings, like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Like A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel)” and “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You).” I can see how soul music is related to gospel, but I don't care for the kind of gospel that is sung in a very slow, drawn out manner with long pauses, and those kinds of songs are in this film.
If you like that kind of music, this movie, and the album of the same name, is for you. I liked it because I like Aretha Franklin. I like her voice, and all the feeling that she puts into a song. In the movie she was crying, other people were crying. People got up and danced. They could not help themselves. That's the power she has. In the movie, I think it was James Cleveland who said that Aretha can sing anything. There is no doubt about that. This film rates a B.
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