Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Passed Over: Aretha Franklin/Amazing Grace

[purchase the Complete Recordings]
[purchase the DVD of the film

My wife and I just finished watching the eight part NatGeo (!) series, Genius: Aretha Franklin. Season 1 was about Einstein, and season 2 was about Picasso, which puts Franklin, deservedly, into pretty lofty company. The series tells the life story of Franklin, who was notoriously private during her lifetime, and how she was able to deal with the benefits and burdens of her prodigious musical talent. It isn’t always a pretty picture—her father, well-known minister C.L. Franklin, was a controlling, philandering probable alcoholic who took Aretha out on the gospel circuit as a young teenager and appeared to have let her run around unsupervised, leading to two pregnancies at 12 and 13, and who himself impregnated a 12 year old. Aretha herself could be both cruel and supportive of her two sisters, Carolyn and Erma, fine singers in their own right, whose solo careers paled in comparison, but who regularly worked as background singers (and songwriters) for their sister. And she also made career judgments that, in retrospect, seem suspect. On the other hand, her singing, piano playing and arranging (despite not being able to read or write music), were extraordinary, and her ultimate insistence on producing credits and control over her music, was groundbreaking. Definitely worth the watch, and Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Franklin, is great. 

In 1972, coming off of one of her most successful albums, the politically charged Young Gifted and Black, Franklin suggested a return-to-her-roots gospel album. Ultimately, it was decided that Aretha would perform in a church, featuring the Southern California Community Choir, led by James Cleveland, the great gospel musician and singer, who had, in Aretha’s youth, led the choir at C.L. Franklin’s church. The TV series shows C.L. firing Cleveland because Cleveland failed to tell him about Aretha’s second pregnancy, and thus made Franklin’s decision to perform with him, and not at C.L.’s church, a deliberate slap in her father’s face. I don’t know if that is true, but it did make for good television. 

They decided to film two performances, and hired Sidney Pollack, still relatively early in his career, but with an Academy Award nomination under his belt, to direct. The performances, mostly by Franklin, but also by the choir and Cleveland, were incredible, and the word spread so that the second night became an event, and was attended by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in Los Angeles working on Exile on Main Street (and the gospel touches on that album are often attributed to their attendance that night). C.L. Franklin showed up, too (uninvited, according to the show), and sermonized a bit. 

But when they went to get the film ready for release, a failure to use the traditional clapperboards made it impossible to synchronize the sound with the video under with the technology of the time. So, the film was put in the vault. An album including excerpts from the two nights, also named Amazing Grace, was released to both massive commercial and critical success. 

In the early 1990s, Jerry Wexler, the producer who essentially navigated Franklin to stardom after a lackluster start at Columbia Records, told a staff producer at Atlantic Records, Alan Elliott, about the footage, and they eventually discussed it over a period of years. Pollack, who was dying of cancer in 2007, encouraged Elliott to finish the movie, and he bought the rights from Warner Brothers and began the painstaking process of using digital technology to sync the music and film. It was scheduled for release in 2011, but Franklin sued to prevent its release without her permission. A few years later, the original contract that Franklin signed was found, and another release was scheduled, but Franklin sued again to prevent release. Whether her reluctance was based on a demand for money, or because her bad health prevented her from promoting the film, or out of her frustration over not ever having an acting career, or other reasons, it wasn’t until after Aretha’s death in 2018 from pancreatic cancer that Elliott was able to get her estate’s permission to release it. 

My wife and I had a chance to see the movie in 2019 at the great Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, back when people still went to movies, and it was mind blowing. It is, in many ways, very minimalist—there is no narration to speak of, no talking heads, just music (and a little preaching). Franklin is literally a force of nature, as she leaves nothing behind in singing songs that clearly have deep meaning to her, which you can see not only from her effort, but from the sweat pouring from her face

You can hear the 10 minute plus version of “Amazing Grace” in the video above. It is pretty much unbelievable. What you can’t see in the video, and you really should watch the movie--it is streaming on Hulu as this goes to press—is how the music affected everyone in the church—Franklin, the audience, the choir and the other performers. As described in an NPR piece about the movie: 

Near the end of the song "Amazing Grace," for which Cleveland has been accompanying Franklin on the piano, he slides off the piano bench, giving his space to [Alexander] Hamilton [the assistant choir director], and surrenders to shoulder-heaving sobs, rocking himself back and forth in a congregational seat. He's not the only one — by this point, audience and performers alike are wiping tears from their faces — and when Franklin herself sinks down into a seat at the song's conclusion, she well may be weeping, too. But her face is so sparkling with perspiration, it's impossible to tell for sure. 

And when they recreated a portion of it in the TV show, Erivo’s version was powerful enough to move us to tears, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.