It’s fitting that the most amazing moment of Aretha Franklin’s long-unreleased “Amazing Grace” documentary — which premieres Nov. 12 at the DOC NYC film festival, before a run from Dec. 7 to 14 at Manhattan’s Film Forum — is when the late, legendary Queen of Soul sings the 11-minute version of the title tune.
The visual companion to one of the most transcendent live performances ever captured on record — the centerpiece of Franklin’s 1972 gospel opus that was the best-selling album of her career — is wretch-saving stuff.
Gospel great the Rev. James Cleveland, who presides over the proceedings with humor as both pastor and pianist, is so moved by Franklin’s conjuring of the holy spirit that he has to step off of the bench to weep into his sweat towel. Franklin herself — eyes closed through most of the performance, pushing the upper regions of her register to heavenly heights — has to take a break to sit and compose herself midway through.
It’s that kind of moment that was worth waiting 46 years to see captured, when the “Amazing Grace” double album was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Jan. 13 and 14 in 1972. Since then, the movie — which is more concert film than documentary — has been shelved: first due to technical issues surrounding the syncing of the sound with the picture and, more recently, by Franklin’s own resistance.
It’s been reported that one of the reasons that an aging and ailing Franklin didn’t want this film released during her lifetime was that she knew that it would serve as her ultimate eulogy. And honestly, no one else could have sung Franklin home to glory the way that she does herself here.
But now, thanks to the blessing given by Franklin’s family, we can all behold such moments as Mick Jagger jumping out of his seat in the congregation to shimmy to “Climbing Higher Mountains”; Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, praising his daughter as “a stone singer” — as she looks on bashfully and slightly embarrassed — and then lovingly wiping the sweat off of her at the piano; and when a water miraculously appears for Franklin immediately after Cleveland requests one.
Hearing Franklin sing “Never Grow Old” at the end, showcasing her underappreciated skills on the keys, is even more stirring after her passing in August. Then 29, it seems as if she would have lived forever on the strength of those mighty pipes.
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