I went trough a period of mild depression recently, caused by bad weather and my annual Autumn chest cold so without really paying attention to it, I went work-home-work-home for a few weeks and would not leave my bed, while poring rain outside howled outside my window. Nothing gave me any joy or pleasure and I just wanted to disappear under the bed cover and fade away to sleep. Than at certain point I realised this is not healthy anymore so I decided to treat myself with something nice and to cheer myself up, I bought a ticket for newest movie about Aretha Franklin. On the night of the screening I regretted that I have to go anywhere because it was pouring rain again but it turned out into magical evening. First of all, the audience was very excited and enthusiastic + it was obvious that everybody who came trough the wind and the rain really wanted to be there. I must admit that Dutch cinema audience is by far the most civilised I have ever encountered - they are polite, appreciative and at the end of the movie always respectfully wait until all the credits are ended (unlike in my own Croatia where stampede starts instantly and no one cares about the credits). Right before the main feature started, there was a trailer about the new biopic of Judy Garland and I was amused to hear man sitting next to me muttering "tramp" - it startled me initially but later I thought to myself, well yes, why pretending its otherwise, we can light the candles at her shrine and click our heels all we want but sad truth is that woman probably was needy pain in the neck and someone I would probably avoid in real life.
And now to a main feature: almost 50 years ago Queen of Soul (who at that time was at the peak of her powers) decided to go back to her roots and show to the world that she never forgot where she started from - the project was called "Amazing Grace" and it was double LP album recorded completely live at Baptist Church in Los Angeles. It turned into massive hit and to this day is still the best selling gospel album of all times (a feat she was not able to top with its sequel from 1987.) but what most people were not aware is that simultaneously as the recording was made, celebrated director Sydney Pollack filmed the whole process and live documentary was planned - than inexplicably shelved, locked in some vaults and completely forgotten. To this day, it is not completely clear why exactly this exciting document was never released - some say it was a technical issue (syncing music with the footage), others it was Franklin herself who even hired lawyers to stop the release without her permission. In any case, it turned in a great blessing because just as Franklin passed away, the movie is here to remind her what a sensational and once-in-a-lifetime artist she was.
First of all, some impressions: we all know the music but just hearing it means we actually never saw what it looked like in church itself. What a spectacle! Church itself was surprisingly small place, nothing special actually and audience was not so large - in fact initially it all looked somehow underwhelming (kind of studio recording with a small audience included, technicians and electric wires all over the place) until the music starts. The Church choir walks in (very theatrically, in some kind of procession step) and than great lady herself - introduced by enthusiastic reverend James Cleveland and there is also a strikingly athletic choir director Alexander Hamilton who at the times seems ready to fly away with the music. We all know that Aretha sang like a dream but its a special privilege to see her live in a church which for her is a completely natural habitat - the moment when she starts to sing, with her eyes closed, the God is in the house and suddenly we forget the shabby surroundings, tin-foil costumes of the choir or silly hairstyles of the church ladies in the audience. The power of music was so strong and overwhelming that I could not sit still in my chair but was constantly jigging along and following the rhythm with my fingers, occasionally even tearing up and wondering why am I crying - after all, I have no connections with Baptist church, religion or that unflattering painting of white Jesus on the wall - somehow the music itself lifted everything above its surroundings and the final effect was sensational. At the end of the movie the audience wildly applauded and everybody was super excited & thrilled to witness such a wonderful posthumous gift from Franklin who herself would have been pleased. What strikes me as very interesting is that she was completely focused on music and very unlike diva we expected her to be - other singers (specially contemporary ones) would probably pose for the camera and avoid unflattering angles but Franklin was all business - she was here to record and all her attention was on piano, microphone and music itself. Caught in a moment, she sweated a lot and I wondered why no one brings her something to wipe it off, until her own father (famously handsome and charismatic minister C. L. Franklin) joins the audience and at one point gently wipes her face - the way Franklin looks at him is absolute admiration, she was clearly a daddy's girl. Gospel singer Clara Ward is also here, sitting next to him and her own mother, Gertrude - gospel star of earlier era - at one point gets so excited that she had to be restrained or else she would jump on the stage. Add to this the audience clearly enjoying the spectacle and joining into a wild church dance - its just a fantastic visual document that is absolutely not to be missed.