Amazing Grace director says audiences should get involved

Latest - Magic Music 13/09/2019

Newshub's Kate Rodger reviews Aretha Franklin concert documentary 'Amazing Grace' which is in New Zealand cinemas now.

In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

Some 47 years later, the footage of those iconic sessions has made it to the silver screen - and director Alan Elliot says it's not be enjoyed in silence. 

Elliot says the greatest screening of his long-awaited love letter to Franklin was back at that same church with 11 of the surviving members of the gospel choir that accompanied her nearly five decades earlier. 

"They're singing, yelling at each other, talking to each other, talking to their pastor," he says.

It's all part of the "black church experience," which Elliot calls the "kernel of the birth of popular music". 

Photo credit: StudioCanal

Certainly, the film's very existence seems to be worth unbridled celebration. 

Initially spearheaded by Oscar-winning film great Sydney Pollack, the 12-year slog to get the film made began after Pollack told Elliot: "I think you know the movie better than I do, and I think you should go and finish it".

Elliot was tasked with overcoming a cinematic screw-up of colossal proportions: the sessions had been filmed without the use of clapper boards, meaning the audio and the pictures were hopelessly, torturously unsynchronised. 

"People ask me, 'would you do it again?' Well, no. If you had told me 12 years ago that we'd have to spend this amount of time doing it, no!" he admits.  

Thankfully, Elliot preserved, spurred on by what he calls a "pre-destination" that began with his father bringing him home a version of Amazing Grace when he was eight years old. 

Determined to realise the film in as authentic a manner as possible, Elliot made some unorthodox decisions. 

"The great thing about making a movie that you pay for is that you can do whatever you want," he explained. 

For Elliot, that meant bucking the music documentary trend of "verse-chorus-verse-chorus, cut to talking head".

Instead, movie-goers are invited to take a pew and become a part of those two epic evenings without any shortcuts. 

Photo Credit: Studio Canal

As audience members, we sit through the recording's technical difficulties, watch Franklin's father dab at her brow, wait as the choir members file in. Franklin herself hardly addresses us. Yet somehow, we've learned more about her than we were expecting by the end. 

"To me, these always felt like sacred texts, and needed to be treated accordingly," Elliot explains. 

Elliot says his film is one that "explains a lot without explaining anything," and it's perhaps the inexplicable moments of both the film that make it what it is. 

Whether or not a defiant lack of explanation will fly with the usher when you inevitably throw your popcorn in the air in a fit of jubilation remains to be seen.

Amazing Grace is out in New Zealand cinemas now.

Newshub reporter Monika Barton