Six months after Aretha Franklin‘s death, a documentary with rare footage of the Queen of Soul will take fans behind-the-scenes of the recording of her classic 1972 live gospel album, Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace is a 90-minute documentary that director Spike Lee has described as “One of the greatest concerts ever put to film,” he said at a private screening in LA back in December, adding “As we know, Aretha is one of the world’s treasures—not just the United States of America, but the world’s treasures.”
Lee became intrigued with the project after meeting the filmmaker behind its resurrection, producer Alan Elliott. The footage sat in boxes in storage for decades until Elliott used his own money to correct technical issues with the documentary, which screened at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival last week.
During a Q&A at the festival with Urban Hollywood 411 founder Anita Bennett, Elliott, who is white, explained why he believes race made it quite challenging for him to find a distributor. He noted that Netflix was among the many digital companies that rejected him. But when Mr. Lee saw the doc at a screening in New York City, he offered to help.
“Spike said, ‘talk to me, black man to black man,’” Elliott recalled as the audience laughed.
“I told him, if Paul McCartney had died… and they found a movie of Sgt. Pepper being filmed, and it was the best reviewed film of the year, and Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Apple didn’t bid on it at all. What would you say?” Elliott explained, suggesting race…
Footage for Amazing Grace was captured in January 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist in Los Angeles, where Franklin was joined by Rev. James Cleveland and his choir for two days of gospel sessions. Warner Bros. reportedly wanted a documentary to chronicle the album’s recording.
Elliott inherited the project from its original director Sydney Pollack, after his death in 2008. Pollack’s version suffered a sound-syncing error, which reportedly left the footage unusable, so Warner Bros. shelved it.
The project also sat in legal limbo for years because Franklin resisted its release for reasons that remain unclear.
“It isn’t that I’m not happy about the film, because I love the film itself,” Franklin told the Detroit Free Press in 2015. “It’s just that — well, legally, I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.”
In 2011, Franklin sued Elliott, arguing he wasn’t authorized to use her name and image. They ultimately settled out of court. Years later she hit him with another lawsuit after he reportedly uncovered a contract between the record label and the soul singer that authorized the doc’s release.
“We’ve gotten past all that, and both sides are very excited about getting the movie before a public audience,” said Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and executor of the estate.
Elliot recently teamed with engineer Jimmy Douglass, who mixed the live album, and using the magic of digital technology, they edited the “big box of film and big box of audio” he acquired years ago and edited it into a cohesive film.
“It’s an excellent film. I see it as very pure,” said Owens. “Aretha is around 30 years old. Her voice is crystal clear. It’s just very inspirational, very moving. We think anyone who sees it will get joy out of it.”
A month after Franklin’s death, Elliot screened the film for the singer’s family at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“We can see Alan’s passion for the movie, and we are just as passionate about it,” Owens told Variety. “It’s in a very pure environment, very moving and inspirational, and it’s an opportunity for those individuals who had not experienced her in a gospel context to see how diverse her music is. We are so excited to be a part of this.”
Elliott told Vulture that Franklin once demanded $5 million for the film. Details of the estate’s final agreement have not been disclosed.
Neon acquired North American rights to the documentary a month after its world premiere at the DOC NYC film festival last November, Variety reported. Amazing Grace is slated for an early 2019 theatrical release. The doc has also acquired distribution deals in several foreign markets.
The filmmakers want to partner with social justice campaigns for the wide release, including those advocating for clean water in Flint, Mich.
Elliot says longtime fans of the album will find the 1972 performance unfolding on the big screen visually arresting and intoxicating.
“This is a transcendent experience if you’re a music lover,” he said. “You don’t have to love gospel or R&B or any (particular) style. This is just pure music, played by one of the great rhythm sections in music history, sung by the greatest singer of our generation.”
An official release will be announced soon.