From 24th May 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Hymns and punk records share a musical principle, if wildly different ideologies: most cabe satisfyingly done in three minutes. They both benefit from concentrated performance. The most anthemic item in the hymn book, Amazing Grace, usually rounds up its soaring plea for divine reevaluation at the three and a half minute mark. Now, accounting for the fact that religious choral singing, full as it is of transport and distracted ecstasy, can often get carried away with the melody, and Amazing Grace contains many verses that get cut, this could jump to around five. Aretha Franklin’s version, as recorded on her live 1972 gospel album of the same name, lasts 10.45 minutes exactly.
It’s sung in rhapsodic long metre form; the tight hymnal quatrains of John Newton’s original completely thrown off in favour of gospel’s improvised outcries. Every word, more or less, is isolated from its line, sung with force and then repeated, sometimes, like the powerful “He was” of the middle section, almost as though the audience is being taught an unfamiliar verse that we’re supposed to copy. But the catch is we can’t. The extempore touches mean that we what already know about the song is useless; we’re not being tutored or being asked to join in. Franklin is delivering an electrified prayer, one so personal that it exhausts the a capella feedback loop of gospel itself. It mirrors a fundamental religious trope. Scriptural learning only gets you so far, the rest is the mettle of personal devotion.
The song forms the sixth track (seventh on the double LP) in Alan Elliot’s Amazing Grace, a rediscovered documentary. Warner Communications commissioned Sydney Pollack to film the album being recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January 1972 as they thought a ‘making of’ documentary would repeat the incredible profits they recouped from Michael Wadleigh’s film of Woodstock in 1970. It was never released. In the heat of catching live music, the production crew didn’t use clapperboards, or any other synchronising device, so audio and image were destined to remain incomprehensibly offbeat. Luckily Elliot has slaved away since 1990 pairing up the two and this is the result.
I can’t imagine the patience required to match individual 16mm frames with the clapping beat of gospel. And seeing as my knowledge of filmed concerts is admittedly thin, I’m not qualified to comment on the achievement as a genre piece. At one stage, I could pretty much perform Stop Making Sense on cue (if ever requested). Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special is a favourite. Nevertheless as a technical feat the movie is impressive, but Amazing Grace is more than this, it’s astonishing.
To make a swift 86 minute film, some elements of the LP are lost: the awesome bluesy beauty of ‘God Will Take of You” isn’t here, and neither is Franklin’s take on ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. By way of reparation, we get two versions of the ‘You Got A Friend’, one a pop rendition and the other a gospel variation, a typically powerhouse riff on Clara Ward’s ‘I Got Over’ (Ms Ward was in attendance), as well as gospel classics like ‘Never Grow Old’. In a humbling, prayerful touch, Franklin ends the whole concert by launching into freeform singing of the phrase ‘My Soul is Satisfied’ over and over again.
My favourite moment, though, was the first performance, Wholy Holy, written by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland. With the Motown songwriting team, the song is more flagrantly soul (read secular) than anything else here, but the South Californian Community Choir, which act as Franklin’s backing choir, do some lovely subtle orchestration around this. You’ll find more than the lambent voice of lady soul here too. The Rev James Cleveland, himself a noted gospel performer, conducts both evenings, playing the piano and offering brilliant vocal support, most notably a gorgeous rhythmic baritone in ‘Precious Memories’. Aretha’s father, the famed preacher C L Franklin, gives a short speech. Oddest of all, Mick Jagger makes a brief appearance, prancing about and showing some rare antipathy for the devil.
All of these extras are glimpsed, but the camera lingers on Franklin. Up close, she sweats under the lighting and equipment. She closes her eyes frequently. She occasionally whispers a quick thank you at the congregation. The overall impression is one of deep belief in her task as gospel musician, intermixed with implacable perfectionism. Contrary to her final prayer, she never actually seems satisfied. (Later in life, Franklin sought legal action twice to prevent the film from being shown at festivals. Apparently, the reason being that permission to use her image was never sought.)
She’s united piety and pop, though seems unsure about what it has achieved. Yet again, the apparent elasticity of gospel is deceiving. It all looks like tremendous fun, riffing on classic songs, introducing mainstream soul into a church service. Yet fusion leads to questioning. Did it work? Could that have run have been better? What can you really ever add to tradition? Amazing Grace is a documentary as much of Aretha Franklin’s unparalleled voice as a record of the serious joyousness of gospel.
Magnificent all round.