For nearly half a century, footage of a signature performance by Aretha Franklin has stayed locked in the vault, stuck in legal limbo.
Now the wait could be coming to an end.
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Franklin died Thursday at age 76 after a long battle with cancer. Her death could set into motion a series of events that finally makes the film available to the public.
The movie, “Amazing Grace,” documents Franklin’s iconic performance of the eponymous live double album at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972. Shot by Oscar-winner Sydney Pollack, it had been mired in technical and legal limbo for years, until a former record producer and UCLA professor named Alan Elliott completed it over a seven-year period after Pollack’s death in 2008 and prepared to show it at the 2015 Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
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But just hours before it was to screen at Telluride, Franklin successfully blocked the screening of the film, winning an injunction in Colorado against the festival. In the wake of the injunction, the movie was shown to industry buyers at Toronto but never screened for the public. To this day it has not been released or seen.
Her death has now raised the possibility the film could be shaken loose via an agreement with Franklin’s family. A person familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified out of sensitivity to the singer’s recent passing said there will be new negotiations that could result in an agreement, and possibly even a deal with a distributor to release the film this Oscar season.
After the injunction, Lionsgate agreed to acquire the film for nearly $3 million. Franklin was promised $1 million, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who did not want to be identified because of the closed-door nature of discussions, but she declined to sign any contracts. The deal fell apart, and the movie’s rights reverted to Elliott.
Owing to a legal dispute with Elliot and the director’s estate, Pollack is no longer credited as the director.
A 2018 release of “Amazing Grace” would potentially serve as a tribute to the late singer. The film, which this reporter saw in 2015, has a majestic but informal sweep, serving as both a soaring concert film and a document of a singer’s inchoate talent. The effect is heightened because the show is set entirely in a church.
The singer puts a religious spin on such 20th-century pop classics as Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Franklin’s objections to the film’s release during her life were unclear. Telluride director Julie Huntsinger said at the time of the injunction that the musician had no reason to dislike the movie.
“It’s a beautiful film,” Huntsinger said. “She looks great in it. She should be proud of it.”
Franklin was known for her wariness of legal agreements and any payments not made directly to her in cash. In a 2016 profile in the New Yorker, the magazine’s editor David Remnick described the payment process for one performance:
“On the counter in front of her, next to her makeup mirror and hairbrush, were small stacks of hundred-dollar bills. She collects on the spot or she does not sing. The cash goes into her handbag and the handbag either stays with her security team or goes out onstage and resides, within eyeshot, on the piano.”
He quotes a Franklin friend, the media personality Tavis Smiley, as saying that it “It’s the era she grew up in-she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B.B. King, get ripped off. There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”
It is unclear if Franklin left a will, or if there are any directives about the film in it.
Reached by The Washington Post on Thursday, Elliot sent along a statement: “Ms. Franklin said ‘I love the film.’ Unfortunately for all of us, she passed before we could share that love. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a testament to the timelessness of Ms. Franklin’s devotion to music and God. Her artistry, her genius and her spirit are present in every note and every frame of the film. We look forward to sharing the film with the world soon.”
Executives at Telluride and Toronto did not comment Thursday. Franklin’s chief spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Quinn, did not respond to a request for comment.
The consumer appetite for “Amazing Grace” was quickly on display Thursday. Just hours after her death, many entertainment publications were writing odes to the audio of the performance and the event’s larger atmosphere.
“For all the historic moments that she helped soundtrack and elevate over the span of decades, it was the pair of concerts delivered at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972 that rank as her finest hours,” the magazine Billboard wrote of Franklin, adding of her performance of the title track.
“For 11 full minutes she lives in a state of grace, as she sings to the Lord, for the Lord, letting his light and his love fill her body and soul, and then sending it pouring out into the microphone placed inches from her face and into the ears of the people sat rapt before her in the pews, and those listening months later at home or in their car, for all eternity.”