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Amazing Grace: Documentary of Aretha Franklin’s live recording of the best-selling gospel album of all time

DWIGHT BROWN | 12/1/2018, 1:03 p.m.
Back in the day, if you couldn’t get to church on Sunday to hear the pastor’s sermon, you’d put on ...
Aretha Franklin performs during a live recording of How I Got Over in a scene the Amazing Grace documentary that features her with choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, January 1972. The Dallas Examiner screenshot from film trailer

Easily the most dramatic performance from the two days of singing has got be her intense rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep. It’s a classic spiritual that dates back to the Civil War when it was sung by slaves as a coded message that said that times will get better, oppressors will get their due, persevere and resist.

In lyrics that the overseers could not fully understand, the chorus goes: “[Soloist] Pharaoh’s army. [Choir] Pharaoh’s army. [Soloist] I know you know that story of how they got drowned in the sea one day, oh yeah. [Choir] Drown in the Red Sea.”

Franklin caresses the melody and draws extra meaning out of every word of a song that became popular again during the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement.

There’s more on view than just a memorable performance by one of America’s most famous vocalists. Also on exhibit is a musical form that has been an integral part of the Black community since Africans first arrived in America.

What audiences witness, through song and on display, is a rich resilient culture that has an undeniable affinity with music. Also, the love on view in this house of worship in Watts is not unique. It plays out on Sundays in Black churches all over the country. It’s a continuous affirmation of customs, a spiritual calling, a communion with neighbors. And a front row seat to the evolution of Black gospel music that started in fields and has grown into a very sophisticated art form with choirs, instruments and amplification. Spirituals have come a long way.

Kudos to Alan Elliott for managing and bringing to fruition a creative process that has stymied others for years. He does his best, considering some of the original footage is out of focus.

Editor Jeff Buchanan magically weaves together the performances, anecdotes and crowd scenes into a very tight and enthralling 87 minutes.

The sumptuous sound is courtesy of the Grammy-winning producer/engineer Jimmy Douglass who handles music mixing duties for this doc and also worked on previous Aretha albums like Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black. The pacing and sound of this documentary is extraordinary, especially when you consider that sound syncing was the foil that caused the film’s 46-year delay.

Pastors are the noted spiritual guides in churches. What this documentary makes clear is that gospel singers have an equal influence. They bring hope, a sense of empowerment, soul cleansing and spiritual massages. In fact, after church, quite often it is the singer’s words and tunes that linger long after the minister’s sermon has been forgotten.

In Amazing Grace, Aretha is a conduit who channels a spirit from above into the hearts of those who listen. With the premiere and distribution of this film, she can do that for eternity.

At some point in this thoroughly compelling documentary, Franklin prophetically sings, “… I’m climbing, higher mountains, higher mountains, trying to get home …”