Aretha Franklin never left the church, her father exclaims in the documentary "Amazing Grace."
The film shot in 1972 shows Franklin recording her live gospel album "Amazing Grace" at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles' Watts district.
Unlike the album, her career best-seller, the film remained locked away for years because famed director Sydney Pollack failed to synchronize sound and action. Producer Alan Elliott discovered raw footage, fixed the technical problems with digital technology and completed an 89-minute film.
But before her death, Franklin prevented the documentary's release. After she died, her estate agreed to let the film come out in 2018.
Franklin grew up singing in the Detroit mega-church of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a nationally known evangelist. She'd already recorded her big popular hits in 1972, when she decided at age 29 to return to her gospel roots and record the live album.
A regal presence in white caftan and robes, Franklin reaches a higher realm with her singing. As her father says in an electric appearance, her voice was a gift touched by God.
Performing gospel standards like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and the title song, along with pop-inflected numbers like Marvin Gaye's "Wholly Holy" and Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," Franklin marshals her vocal power like an ethereal instrument, reaching high notes that cause men to weep and women to faint.
Gospel powerhouse the Rev. James Cleveland is a commanding presence, extolling the audience with his booming voice, accompanying Franklin by singing and playing the piano, and conducting the fine Southern California Community Choir. At times overweening, Franklin softens his showmanship with warmth and his enthusiasm for gospel.
Under the direction of the young and vibrant Alexander Hamilton, the Southern California Community Choir steals many scenes. With silver vests and black shirts, the choir responds to Franklin with passion and energy. Their "amens," frenetic movements and spirited singing reveal the roots of James Brown and other soul performers.
In one of the best moments, a male choir member with Afro and mustache fights back tears as Franklin improvises on "Amazing Grace." Her other-worldy keens and soaring and falling registers show a stunning virtuosity. Her father says she reached a "synthesis" of Mahalia Jackson and Cleta Ward. Her "Amazing Grace" mixes in elements of Eliza Fitzgerald and instrumentalists like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, blended into her special artistry.
Franklin's crack band of guitarist Cornell Dupree, drummer Bernard Purdie, bassist Chuck Rainey and keyboard player Kenneth Lupper make the oldest gospel hymns swing. As someone said, the blues gave rock and roll its rock, and gospel its roll.
The low-tech camera finds a surprise among the gray-lit audience, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, unrecognized by the congregation. The Rolling Stones at the time were recording Exile on Main Street in Los Angeles. That album's gospel flavors likely were influenced by Franklin's performance.
Franklin's voice sends the audience into emotional raptures. A female companion of the gospel pioneer Ward faints, and two women rise for an impromptu, frenzied dance. Seated at the piano, Cleveland can't resist a glance at the shaking backside of one of the women.
The appearance by Franklin's father gives the film a dramatic boost. C.L. Franklin heads to the altar and gives an impassioned appreciation of his daughter. A forceful, calculated speaker, Franklin exudes an unsettling mix of religiosity and charisma, inspirational and seductive.
His pride at his daughter's career glows when he tells an anecdcote about someone he sees at the cleaners saying that Aretha should return to the church. He answers that she never left. Songs like "Respect" retain their gospel foundation.
Later, in a strange scene, Franklin wipes the sweat from his daughter's s face as she plays the piano and sings a hymn about a place where people never age.
Cleveland was a mentor to Franklin when she began singing in her father's church as a child. During the film, her impassive face reveals her reserves of power in the presence of the two dynamic men of the gospel world.
The film's recovery is itself a story of "Amazing Grace." Franklin's voice, the impassioned performances of Hamilton, Cleveland and the choir, and the fervor of the congregation are uplifting gifts to a wounded nation. A TV channel would provide a great public service by broadcasting the movie to a broader audience.