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Movie review: ‘Amazing’ Aretha

Published May 08. 2019 02:24PM

“Amazing Grace” depicts a concert by Aretha Franklin filmed in 1972 on two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles, during the recording of a live gospel music album of the same title.

Franklin’s version of “Respect” was a big hit in 1967. The albums, “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now,” both released in 1968, included her hit singles, “Chain of Fools” and “Think.”

Franklin apparently wanted to get back to her gospel singing and recording roots. “Amazing Grace” became the biggest-selling gospel album ever.

Franklin sings lead on the 11 or so songs in the film, standing stationary at a microphone behind a podium, and briefly singing and playing at the Steinway grand, backed by the Southern California Community Choir; the Rev. James Cleveland, piano, and a great group of recording studio session musicians.

What’s extraordinary about “Amazing Grace” is its glimpse into Franklin’s sensitive piano playing, nuanced and powerful singing and almost solemn dedication to the material. You can hear the roots of her vocal power in “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1967) and “Freeway of Love (in a Pink Cadillac),” the latter from her 1985 comeback album.

As introduced by Cleveland, “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King becomes a medley, combined with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Among the moving songs: “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “How I Got Over” and the title song, “Amazing Grace.”

Sydney Pollack directed and, with his blessing, Alan Elliott (a TV and film soundtrack composer in his directorial documentary film debut) took over the project.

The film was not released for more than four decades because the 20 hours of 16 mm film was shot with five cameras without using clapper boards, which made images difficult to synchronize with audio.

The film was re-edited and planned for release in 2011 and 2015, but Aretha Franklin sued the producers. After Franklin died at age 76 in 2018, her family agreed to let the film be released.

The story of the making of the “Amazing Grace” documentary is almost as amazing as the film itself.

“Amazing Grace,” MPAA rated G (General Audiences All ages admitted. Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children.); Genre: Documentary, Music; Run time: 1 hr., 29 mins. Distributed by Neon.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Amazing Grace” director Sydney Pollack, and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are seen briefly in the church audience.

Box Office, May 3-5: “Avengers: Endgame” broke more records with the biggest-ever second-weekend gross, $145.8 million (compared to $149.2 million for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), $619.6 million, two weeks; keeping out “The Intruder” opening at No. 2, with $11 million, one week, and “Long Shot,” true to its title, opening at No. 3, with $10 million, and “UglyDolls” with a not-so-pretty opening at No. 4, with $8.5 million. In 12 days, “Avengers: Endgame,” with $2.1 billion worldwide, is the second biggest grossing movie (after “Avatar”).

5. “Captain Marvel,” $4.2 million, $420.7 million, nine weeks. 6. “Breakthrough” dropped two places, $3.9 million, $33.2 million, three weeks. 7. “The Curse of La Llorona” dropped four places, $3.5 million, $48.1 million, three weeks. 8. “Shazam!” dropped three places, $2.4 million, $135.1 million, five weeks. 9. “Little” dropped three places, $1.4 million, $38.5 million, four weeks. 10. ”Dumbo” dropped three places, $1.4 million, $109.7 million, six weeks. 14. “Amazing Grace” dropped two places, $367,395, $2.7 million, 22 weeks.

Unreel, May 10:

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” PG: Rob Letterman directs Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton and Bill Nighy in the sci-fi comedy. A talking Pikachu wants to become a detective.

“The Hustle,” PG-13: Chris Addison directs Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Tim Blake Nelson and Alex Sharp in the comedy. Two female con artists scheme against men who wronged them.

Three popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

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