‘Amazing Grace’ Documentary Dishonors the Late Queen of Soul

The highly anticipated documentary of the live recording of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album Amazing Grace debuted on April 5, 2019. The concert was performed over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, California and released as a double LP six months later. It remains the most commercially successful live gospel album in history and the biggest selling of Franklin’s career, netting her a Grammy.

Unresolved technical issues and Franklin’s own resistance delayed the release of the Warner Bros. documentary for years. In her 1999 autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, Franklin remembered the concert as “quite special because it took me back to the original source of my musical inspiration.” It also reunited her with longtime friend and mentor James Cleveland. Yet Franklin negatively characterized the filming of her concert, partly because her “performances were filmed with no agreement with me in place.”

This blatant oversight echoed her early years in the music business, during which time she was robbed of revenue by Columbia and Atlantic Records. After a decade in the business, a still young but wiser Franklin determined that the only way Warner Bros. would hijack her project would be over her dead body — which is precisely what happened.

The movie industry’s exploitative appropriation of Franklin’s project, and the release of the documentary absent the Queen of Soul’s blessing, is the height of disrespect to an American icon whose lifelong career is reflected in seven simple letters: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Yet during this time, Franklin’s sole concern was the music. She left industry politics and finances for the record executives to sort out; something she later regretted. Franklin found the business aspect boring but later admitted, “little did I know how much money was going back and forth across the table until my awakening.” The Amazing Grace project marks Franklin's transformation from artist into businesswoman.

While much ado has been made about the technical errors made by Sydney Pollack, the film’s worst error is the way Franklin is relegated to the margins as a minor player who obediently sings as she is told. Instead, Amazing Grace prominently features Cleveland as emcee and music director, and choir director Alexander Hamilton. As longtime Franklin friend and bassist Chuck Rainey aptly stated, “The film, to me, is all about James Cleveland, her father, Clara Ward…. It was like she was wallpaper.” Franklin certainly carries the film as her powerful vocals transport the audience to spiritual heights, but the film itself (no matter how many cameras were used) often appears schizophrenic. When the camera should be on Franklin, it is instead trained (and too long, I would add) on a person in the audience or the choir rather than on the person who was responsible for the two-night spiritual extravaganza.

The film misses Franklin’s central role in her project; she was in the driver’s seat from its inception to its completion.

It was Franklin who proposed the project to Atlantic Records which, by that time, was owned by Warner Bros. She decided it would be a live album recorded in a church because “gospel is a living music and it comes most alive in an actual service.” As she wrote in a 1961 New Amsterdam News article, Franklin's foray into the mainstream was not an abandonment of her gospel roots but an expansion that affirmed the current reality “of love, frustration, and heartache of my people.” Franklin was still taking care of the Lord’s business. Further, she chose Los Angeles as the project’s location because it was where Cleveland and his famous Southern California Community Choir were located. While she and Cleveland shared piano duties, Franklin brought her own rhythm section. Cleveland, Hamilton, and Franklin arranged and rearranged traditional and contemporary gospel songs to offer a broader musical repertoire which they hoped would further catapult gospel into the mainstream as Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” did in 1967.

Warner Bros. was also looking to replicate the success of its earlier “rockumentaries” such as Monterey Pop (1968) and Woodstock (1970).

While the Amazing Grace LP is historic for its mainstream success, it is also historic because this was the first album in which Franklin is listed as a co-producer — no small feat for a Black woman. This work solidified her as an artist and businesswoman, yet Warner Bros. disrespected Franklin. Pollack held on to the footage until he was too sick to do anything with it, then sold it to producer Alan Elliott who never bothered to consult Franklin about the project. She sued him each time he attempted a public viewing of the film because it breached “her rights to use and control her name and likeness.”

Although Elliott and others stated that Franklin loved the documentary, there is no evidence that she ever saw it and the singer was vocal regarding her negative sentiments about the footage. In her memoir, Franklin stated that a cameraman on the front row “kept shooting straight up underneath Clara’s [Ward] dress,” adding, “Talk about bad taste.” Thankfully this violation was edited out but it continues to demonstrate that Black women then and now (regardless of status) must struggle for the respect they deserve.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.” This is the message Elliott and Franklin’s family ignored when the film finally received the green light for public release not long after her death. Those who celebrate its release assert it honors Franklin’s legacy. Yet, in a world where parasitic white men who have longed profited off of the bodies and images of Black women, the debut of the Amazing Grace documentary was the height of disrespect to the Queen of Soul, whose wish that the film not be released in life should have also been honored in death.

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.