When Aretha Franklin died on August 16, the first thing I did was listen to Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings. The original 1972 album, Amazing Grace, the highest-selling gospel album—still—of all time and one of the great sung performances, is actually a greatest hits album from two days of performances. Some songs on that album were only performed on January 13, some only on January 14, and some on both nights. The timeless album is the best of the best.
On The Complete Recordings, released by Rhino in 1999, however, you’re transported inside the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. It’s perfectly imperfect. You get more dialogue, more chatter from the crowd between songs, and most notably the moment Reverend James Cleveland had to stop “How I Got Over” just as it began, because the audience started clapping too early.
“You know y’all threw us off just then,” Reverend Cleveland says. The audience is laughing. He’s laughing. It’s joyous.
Moments like these, in addition to Aretha’s triumphant vocal performance, are what always intrigued me about the documentary that it seemed the public would likely never see, the Sydney Pollack–directed Amazing Grace. For decades, the documentary—which is made from the footage of the two-night performance—has been riddled with syncing problems and legal issues, all of which has led to the film never being released. In 2008, a Colorado judge ruled that any commercial use of the film must have Franklin’s permission, due to her right to control her image. And Franklin seemed clear that she didn’t want the film released, even though she once told the Detroit Free Press that she loved the film. In 2015, in a surprise turn, Amazing Grace was set to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, but those plans were sacked after Franklin received an injunction from the courts to block a screening at the Telluride Film Festival.
After the 2015 hiccup, I’d accepted the fact I’d never see a film that documented my favorite album. It hurt, but the worst-case scenario was still quite great—I could listen to The Complete Recordings for the rest of my life. And then last week, there was another surprise—Amazing Grace, set to screen on November 12, in New York City.
The screening was part of DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival. I hadn’t allowed myself to get too excited, because I half expected it to get shut down by the time I got to my seat in the School of Visual Arts Theatre. But after making it into the theater, I let all the happy emotions rush in. Finally. It was surreal, but also there was a smidge of unease. To be honest, it was a bit unsettling to realize that a documentary Aretha repeatedly blocked from public consumption for decades was being screened only three months after she died. But I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t emotional. And that I wasn’t ready.
For years now, with only a few scattered clips from YouTube, I’d envisioned the entire two nights in my head. And I was able to do that, because I knew every nook and cranny, every ad-lib and bass line and high note and laugh from The Complete Recordings. I listened to it with such frequency I became a student, the two-night performance my primary text. And finally getting to see it was like a theater kid from Iowa making it to Broadway after winning the Hamilton lottery—I, semi-embarrassingly, knew every part and was ready to let everyone know that.
Sitting down, waiting for the introduction to conclude so the film would start, I quickly realized what was truly making me uncomfortable. Looking around, I realized I was about to go to a Baptist church service with a hell of a lot of white people. To paraphrase my friend, a film critic who attends screenings professionally, the fact there were patches of black people scattered throughout was notable. But still, this wasn’t the setting I’d dreamed about. And more importantly, I didn’t think this room was ready for what it was about to experience.
This brief musing on the occasional benefits of segregation was quickly forgotten when Aretha walked into the church, lauded by the onlookers as though she was the Pope.
In 1972, Aretha was at the height of her powers. And you get that, from listening to her. But seeing her perform, both religious and secular music, in a church, with a choir, with that Afro—it’s a transcendent experience, something I knew I would not be prepared for should the day come, and I was not.
Growing up in a church much like New Temple Missionary Baptist, I struggled to fit in with this theater’s subdued attempt at being a congregation. To quote an old black person, somewhere, right now, when that organ goes and that choir starts, I get “happy.” My feet tap, my shoulders bounce, and I sway left to right. Yes, it was a screening, but also this was church. And throughout the film, I found myself with few allies—my animated self was muted, my claps landed on my thigh instead of loudly in my palms. Every five to seven minutes I wanted to stand up, but the room remained seated for the duration. I couldn’t remember the last time I had such an internal struggle with how to behave, publicly. I began to think back to why Aretha didn’t want this film in the world. And was it a question of why? Or was it that she wanted control of where?
While the room routinely pulled me out of the holy bliss on screen, it was only for a moment—Aretha and James and the choir kept pulling me back in. The footage from the first night was marvelous. But what happened in the second night was a reminder that while I thought I knew every aspect of the two-night extravaganza, I really had no idea. And that realization didn’t stem from something Aretha sang or said—it was a moment when she said nothing at all.
Her father, the legendary Reverend C.L. Franklin, came walking down the aisle in a stunning royal blue suit and eventually took the stage, to give some remarks. You can hear these remarks in The Original Recordings, and they are those of a man who loves to preach and wants everyone to understand the pride he feels about his daughter.
While this is happening, they pan to a 29-year old Aretha Franklin. And for a few minutes, you see an Aretha the public has never seen before—one who is bashful and embarrassed, but also grinning from ear to ear on the inside, the way a kid is when their parent stands up at their graduation party and then projects a slideshow of baby pictures. Even though she lived a life as such a widely praised woman, it’s this speech that seems to make her the most uncomfortable; not because she hates it, but because it’s the only praise you ever really want.
Watching Aretha is a reminder that so much of what drives so many is simply to impress our elders, either to prove them wrong or to (finally) gain their approval. It’s a beautiful moment, masterfully complemented with a thunderous one—Aretha singing “Never Grow Old” only feet away from her father and gospel legend Clara Ward. Watching Aretha sing “Amazing Grace” is borderline indescribable, but the emotion that comes through as she sings “Never Grow Old,” her eyes closed for a significant portion of the song while Ms. Ward stands up to jump is a triumphant torch pass. And the moment her father walks up to the piano to wipe the sweat from her forehead, it’s hard to not well up in tears.
Amazing Grace may be the most powerful concert documentary I’ve ever seen. And I only say “may,” because a movie like this should not be shown at festivals in small theaters—only in churches or in environments where you can participate. It lives and breathes. Its existence begs you to join in. To feel something.