What a gift this movie is. The concert documentary “Amazing Grace” puts us in a room where something magical happened: Over two days at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972, Aretha Franklin — already a multiple Grammy-winning superstar — recorded the legendary gospel album “Amazing Grace,” performing to a rapt audience the songs she sang in her childhood. Director Sydney Pollack was hired to film what was planned to be the next great music documentary, like “Woodstock” two years earlier — but due to a host of technical and other problems, the footage was shelved and the film never made. Until now.
Painstakingly reassembled by producer Alan Elliott (Pollack, who never gave up hope on the project, died in 2008), “Amazing Grace” shows us an artist at the peak of her powers. Performing with the Southern California Community Choir, who make shimmering water on which Franklin’s voice floats, she sings a dozen songs; sometimes accompanying herself at the piano, sometimes at a podium. And oh, that voice, with notes that dangle like dewdrops, and soaring crescendos that the vast room can barely hold. Sometimes Franklin sings with her eyes closed, letting the sound pour out like balm on a wound, and I found myself closing my eyes, too, getting lost in the glory of her voice, at once worshipfully solemn and incandescently joyful.
The film never leaves that room — there are no modern-day talking heads here — and it captures the moments in all live performances when things go wrong: a song needs to be started over, a microphone malfunctions due to someone spilling a cup of water on it. But the cameras find a host of small stories: Franklin’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, tenderly wiping the sweat from his daughter’s brow as she sings; choir director Alexander Hamilton, seeming to shape and mold the sound with his gracefully swooping hands; a quiet Mick Jagger, sitting in the back swaying to the beat; faces in the congregation weeping, sighing, praising; pastor James Cleveland reminding those assembled that “this is a church, and we’re here for a religious service.”
That’s what watching “Amazing Grace” feels like, in the very best of ways. When that relaxed walk of piano notes leading into the title song begins, the air seems charged and heightened, like we’re going up to heaven with her; when Franklin begins her slow, triumphant procession through the song, we do. Near the end, she sings “Never Grow Old” — “We can go there, and we ain’t never gonna grow oooh-ho-old,” stroking the last word like it’s something beloved, and time seems to hold still; you think this could have been yesterday, instead of 47 years ago. Franklin died last year, but her voice lives on in anyone who’s heard it. In this joyous, unforgettable film, she’ll never grow old.
★★★★ “Amazing Grace,” a documentary by Alan Elliott. 89 minutes. Rated G. Opens April 12 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.