Monday, November 11, 2019

Amazing Grace Is A Streamlined But Powerful Music Documentary

Some films are ultra-tricky to describe, they're such intricately detailed creations that it can be difficult to figure out how to boil them down to a single paragraph. Other times, movies like Amazing Grace are relatively to explain, which isn't a reflection on its quality for better or for worse but rather a reflection on how it's rather to-the-point. Amazing Grace is a concert documentary capturing Aretha Franklin performing a variety of gospel tunes over the course of two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. While brief stories told during the event illuminate on how singing these songs in her father's church was a formative experience for Franklin, this is not a documentary about Franklin's past, it is about her present circa. 1972.

The footage found in Amazing Grace has long been shrouded in secrecy, as post-production issues related to getting the audio and footage to match up correctly as well as subsequent lawsuits ensured that this Sidney Pollack directorial effort would be stuck in a vault seemingly forever. Luckily, it managed to get a major theatrical release courtesy of NEON earlier this year, thus allowing this documentary to come out to the silver screen. Though it's taken nearly half-a-century to get released, Amazing Grace turns out to be more than just the source for stories of behind-the-scenes strife, it's also a powerful piece of filmmaking in its own right.

As said earlier, Amazing Grace is a very streamlined production that begins and ends with the prospect of watching Aretha Franklin perform a bevy of Christian medleys for a small group of people. Really, what more do you need when you've got a premise like that, especially since Amazing Grace doesn't overstay its welcome with a sub-90 minute runtime. It's also helpful that Franklin's iconic voice, filled with immense power and able to carry a high note to Heaven and back, make for the perfect voice to carry this assortment of tunes. Said tunes, including the titular Amazing Grace, are a collection of songs relying heavily on themes related to perseverance and being inspired, two qualities Franklin's vocals capture beautifully.

In her rendition of Amazing Grace, for instance, the way she carries out each word for an extra-long period of time really lends a sense of weight to every lyric in this tune. Amazing Grace is a song all about what a profound impact the power the Lord has had on a person and that impact is made all the more pronounced through Franklin's spine-tinglingly beautiful singing voice. The fact that she's able to keep this powerful singing up for such prolonged periods of time adds an extra layer of impressiveness to an already outstanding performance. One's genuinely in awe just sitting there and watching a filmed recording of her doing this performance, one can only imagine how it must have been to watch this live.

The responses from audience members during this performance and other Franklin performances make it clear that it must have been extraordinary to witness this in person. Such responses also help to subtly communicate a sense of connectivity that's at the heart of the ideal Church experience. One can feel people being united across the aisles by how moved and/or jubilated they are by Franklin's singing. They may have entered this concert strangers, but all of these audience members leaving tonight are unified now after seeing something truly special. The way the audience's vocal responses and on-screen behavior reinforce how united they are in their adoration of Franklin's singing turns out to be one of the most affecting parts of Amazing Grace.

Performing alongside Franklin include Reverend James Cleveland, who serves as a kind of a host for the proceedings that helps to create organic transition from one tune to the next, and Alexander Hamilton. The latter individual orchestrates a choir accompanying Franklin's vocals and his body movements are truly electric, I could watch his passionate body language used to guide these singers all the livelong day. Yes, Amazing Grace is not a complex movie but that's very much for the better. It doesn't need all kinds of extraneous material to boost up its runtime when it can get so much entertainment and moving power out of an iconic performer like Aretha Franklin.

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