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The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace

Aretha Franklin. Photo/Getty Images

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Amazing Grace is a movie of many miracles. It was a miracle it never came out in the first place after it was filmed in early 1972. It shows a 29-year-old Aretha Franklin at the peak of her powers, returning to her gospel roots, recording in front of a congregation over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a former cinema that still stands in Watts, South Los Angeles.

Released as a double LP in June 1972, the Amazing Grace album became her biggest seller and one of the most popular gospel albums ever.

So, had it come out at the time, the spin-off film might well have lit up the box office. But director Sydney Pollack, a director best known for prestige Robert Redford dramas, never finished the film. Why was never clear. The footage and the audiotape sat for years in a converted nuclear-missile silo in North Dakota that studio Warner Bros used for archive storage. It was the movie that failed to launch.

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That it finally has is another miracle. After the death of Pollack in 2008 and Franklin last August, and after legal action by Franklin in her final years to stop its release, the film has now gone out into the world.

The miracle worker is Alan Elliott. He was eight when the album came out. He remembers his father, Jack, a prominent Hollywood music composer-arranger (the Charlie’s Angels and Barney Miller themes are his), brought the LP home from his work as music director of the Grammy Awards, a post he held for 30 years. In 1998, he was the one who told Franklin that Pavarotti wasn’t coming so Nessun Dorma was hers to sing.

Elliott junior always loved the record. In 1990, he became an A&R man at Atlantic Records, the label of Franklin’s prime from 1967 to the mid-70s. He encountered veteran Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler (co-producer of the Amazing Grace album), who told him about the Aretha film that never was. Elliott was intrigued and began some detective work.

Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott. Photos/Getty Images

He talked to Pollack, who maintained it was Franklin’s contractual issues that stopped the film. As the decades wore on and Elliott pondered his career options – “they closed the music industry on me” – he took a punt, mortgaging his house and buying the film and its component parts from Warners in the hope of resurrecting it.

Dying of cancer in 2008, Pollack had told Elliott he should finish it. While they had discussed the movie, they never sat down with the footage.

What Elliott discovered later was that Pollack and his five-camera crew had filmed without clapperboards marking the beginning of some 2000 shots, so there was no easy way of syncing the 14 hours of 16mm footage with the separate audio recording.

Evidently, Pollack had tried – Elliott found an internal Warners memo about hiring session choirmaster Alexander Hamilton as a lip-reader in the hope of identifying the songs, but the project was shelved. It seemed Pollack’s rookie error stopped the film coming out in 1972. Its non-release, says Elliott, may have soured Franklin’s feelings about it in the decades after.

New digital technology made it easier to match the pictures to the sound, with a team also restoring the digitised celluloid. Jimmy Douglass, the album’s original mixing engineer, was brought in to mix the songs – “so he could be true to himself in 1972, while also being true to 2019 audio quality”. Elliott and editor Jeff Buchanan then went to work assembling a feature-length film.

Though they are almost the same duration, it’s not the film of the original album, which had some post-performance overdubs. Nor does it insert contemporary talking heads. Pollack’s footage may have been technically deficient, but his close-up coverage gives you a seat in the choir stalls or the front pews.

“I loved the music so much that I felt we didn’t need to explain,” says Elliott. “Let’s just stay there and find our own meaning.

“I was determined to be a member of the choir and be inside that room and not have to have anybody tell me anything else. In the same way that Aretha is not telling us anything, she’s showing us what the movie is. We should be smart enough to get that information and make our own decisions.”

But with the film finally in the can, Elliott faced nearly another decade of legal issues before it could be released. He briefly met Franklin backstage in 2008. “I said, ‘I’m Alan Elliott, I’m the fella who has Amazing Grace and gee I’d love to talk to you and I am such a fan.’ She looked at me and said ‘Yes, we’ll be talking,’ and she walked away.”

Franklin’s long-lost and original 1972 Warners contract approving the release was found in 2013, but her lawyers challenged it, injuncting Elliott from screening the finished film at festivals in 2015.

By 2016, Elliott had been told by Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, who is now the executor of her estate, that her aunt was sick. That put a different light on releasing the film.

Footage from Amazing Grace. Photo/Supplied

“She was dying of cancer and with this film I had written this eulogy to her. Did she want to do press around a eulogy for the worldwide release of a movie while she was dying? I think in hindsight I can understand her motivations. I didn’t start the movie to poke a finger in the eye of Aretha Franklin. It was always to do something loving.”

Elliott attended Franklin’s funeral at the family’s invitation. A few weeks later, he returned to Detroit to work with Owens, who became a producer on the finished film.

One of its first screenings was at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where the audience included 11 surviving members of the 1972 backing choir, helping give the whole 47-year project a resounding amen. “I believe the movie is a miracle, but it’s not an accident,” says Elliott of his troubled but finished product.

His next project? A making-of Amazing Grace: “There will be a movie because it has been such a crazy story. Why waste such a crazy story and not tell people?”

Amazing Grace screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival (Auckland from July 19 and Wellington from August 2) before heading to NZIFF events in other centres.

Video: STUDIOCANAL New Zealand

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.