Dear Mailing List,
Long time no see!
The subject of this newsletter is one of the reasons you haven’t heard from me lately. I don’t believe I’ve previously mentioned my involvement in Amazing Grace, the film of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel recording sessions, but I’ve been working on it for some years, helping to get it into the theatres.
I trust Amazing Grace’s release is not news to most of you – it’s had a huge splash of press in the US (where it was released April 5) and the UK (it came out here last Friday). In the coming months it should reach every corner of the world. Finally seeing it with huge audiences at festivals in New York and Berlin over the past few months and reading critics’ and audiences’ reactions has been a gratifying coda to the years of frustration.
The story goes back to 1972 when I was living in LA and working for Warner Brothers Films as ‘Director of Music Services’. Parts of the job were really interesting, like helping Stanley Kubrick put together the music for Clockwork Orange or inviting a Greenwich Village folk-billy down to Georgia to record ‘Duelling Banjos’ for John Boorman’s Deliverance. Others not so much, like the endless stream of directors who rang me up two months before their film had to be ready for release begging me to get them ‘John Williams or someone like him’.
I eventually persuaded the studio to let me make the Jimi Hendrix documentary and slowly morphed from being a bureaucrat into what I was deluded enough to think would be my new career – filmmaker! But before that happened, in December of 1971, Atlantic Records (which was then part of the same corporation) told us they were coming to LA to make a gospel album with Aretha Franklin. It would be done live over two evenings at James Cleveland’s church in Watts. Might we be interested in filming it?
Might we?? I jumped at it and told studio boss Ted Ashley I would find an experienced team of 16mm cameramen to shoot the two nights. Once we’d shot it, there would be time to consider whether it was a TV special, a documentary or simply an elongated promo for the album. But before I could finalize a deal with the crew, I got a call from Ashley. He had mentioned the project to the famous director Sydney Pollack, who turned out to be a huge Aretha fan and wanted to film it himself. I remember saying, ‘do you think that’s wise? Filming live music is a very specialized skill.’ But to no avail; in came Team Pollack and I sat on the sidelines, digesting my lesson in Hollywood studio politics. On the first evening at the church, I asked one of the cameramen how they were going to synch picture to sound; they told me they ‘had it under control’.
Reader, they didn’t. The editor called me a few days later to say he couldn’t do anything as there were no synch marks. Pollack moved on to his next feature and the footage was consigned to the Burbank Studio vaults. Over the years, I occasionally wondered if anyone would try and resurrect it. The answer came in 2010 when I arrived at the LA stop on my ‘Chinese White Bicycles’ tour with Robyn Hitchcock (there’s a six-camera shoot of one of those shows sitting in a vault in Chicago in case anyone’s interested….). Into my Inbox popped an email from one Alan Elliott; he had the Amazing Grace footage – did I want to have lunch?
Alan is a producer/composer/a&r man who once worked at Atlantic, where Jerry Wexler (who had produced the album) told him about the lost film project. Warner Brothers proved willing to let Alan have a go and delivered the film stock and a copy of the audio tapes to his Hollywood garage: no notes, no labels, no instructions. After a few head-scratching weeks, Alan met a woman named Beverly Wood at a party who revealed that she a) had grown up listening to Amazing Grace and b) worked at Deluxe Lab restoring films. She sent a truck to pick up the film and brought it back a few weeks later all synched up. Alan then proceeded to assemble a brilliant and deceptively straightforward 90-minute film. I had the impression from a few 1972 conversations that Pollack was planning to interview all the principles and build an interview-filled music documentary around the footage of those two evenings. Alan turned in the opposite direction: no talking heads, no analysis, no one leading the audience by the hand, no alerts about what you’re about to see. The viewer is simply immersed in the events and music of the two nights at Cleveland’s church.
In some ways, watching the film now is even more astounding than being there. (see photo below of me and my moustache talking to Sydney Pollack on the first night) For one thing, we had to wait after every take while Aretha, Wexler, Cleveland and Arif Mardin walkie-talkied about whether the last take was a keeper, then we’d often hear the same song over again. But perhaps even more important is that we now have a perspective lacking in 1972. I was thrilled to be there, awed by the musicianship, the virtuosity and by the surprise co-star, choirmaster Alexander Hamilton. But with the arrogant optimism of youth (as well as that of the only recently deceased Sixties), I fully expected my life would continue to be full of such musical high points and thrills – bring ‘em on! I’m ready!
Me and my moustache talking to Sydney Pollack, January 1972, Watts
What I had no idea of at the time was how, only a few years later, disco would sweep across the world, someone would invent the drum machine, Aretha would start making pop records with Teddy Pendergrass and the gospel ‘warriors’ would all stop touring. I now see the film as the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African-American secular and religious music. Think about it as you watch Amazing Grace (and you will watch Amazing Grace) how no one makes music like this any more, to say nothing of on this timetable: a double album in two nights, live.
If Alan Elliott were a well-organized, linear, cautious, lawyered-up filmmaker, you would never have been able to see Amazing Grace. He charged ahead, heedless of Aretha’s demand for a huge amount of money, heedless of lawyers who said he had to take care of this company or that person before cutting a single frame. Amazing Grace is the ultimate ‘facts-on-the-ground’, a document so magical and irresistible that a team of producers – myself and my lawyer brother included – have just shrugged and set about picking up the contractual pieces.
Aretha was on record saying she ‘loved the film’, but she wanted the sort of fee that would give any documentary distributor a heart attack. She never had much time for contracts and lawyers and bridled at the bureaucratic complexity of the film industry. When Alan showed her family the film last autumn, they immediately offered to work with us to bring it to out. The process has been hugely complicated; for months, it’s kept me away from my book, from my wife and from my friends. But even now, having seen it again and again, whenever I introduce it at a screening or a festival and tell myself that I’ll leave as soon as I’m sure the sound is loud enough, I find it impossible to tear myself away and end up staying for the whole 87 minutes.
Amazing Grace represents artistry on a level we’re unlikely ever again to see at such close range. It’s an homage to a form born in 1932 when blues singer Georgia Tom’s wife died in childbirth and he turned his back on saucy lyrics, became Thomas A Dorsey again, and wrote ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’, the first modern gospel song (which Aretha performs in a brilliant arrangement in the film.) Gospel music lives on, preserved by talented choirs and singers, but the Golden Era ended that second night in Watts in January 1972. I was lucky to have heard Mavis Staples sing with her family in a Roxbury high school auditorium when she was 16, to see Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones destroy the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre one Sunday afternoon in 1963 and watch Dorothy Love ‘fall out’ after an astounding performance at a store-front church in Newark, New Jersey. I am not religious, but I am happy to gaze in wonder at Italian religious paintings from the 15th century and I remain convinced that between 1932 and 1972, American gospel produced some of the greatest and most influential music ever made. It entered the mainstream via Ray Charles and Aretha and other stars of rock ‘n’ roll and r&b and changed the way the world listened.
Over those two nights, Aretha summed it all up, bringing it, as her father proclaims in the film, ‘into a SYNthesis’ and providing a document for the ages.
If you want to read more about Aretha and the film, check out Josh Jelly-Shapiro’s piece in the NYRB:
and/or Mikal Gilmore’s obituary, which includes a link to a brilliant podcast about her life.
If those two aren’t enough, then get ahold of Anthony Heilbut’s book “The Fan Who Knew Too Much” with its fascinating long chapter on Franklin.