Early in Amazing Grace, Reverend Dr. James Cleveland—the Grammy-winning choir director and, to many, the “King of Gospel”—reminds us why were here. This is a “religious service,” he says to the bustling crowd filling the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in Los Angeles. But its also a recording session. Here are the mics; theres the recording equipment; and all around is the camera crew assigned to make a movie.

“And if things should happen,” says Cleveland at the start, “and we have to take it over—you know how that is. So if you said Amen on it first, and we have to take it over, when we get back to that spot you say Amen again, hear?”

Cleveland already knows what listeners of Amazing Grace, the album being recorded over course of those two days in January of 1972, would soon discover for themselves: gospel is a collective experience. It is as much a matter of the voices soaring over the pews as it is of the voices amplifying that spirit by shouting back. Its the mere fact of wanting to shout back in the first place—of being impelled to catch the spirit by forces much greater than you, no matter how secular you are. Amazing Grace—Aretha Franklins canonical gospel masterpiece—is a case in point. So please, have your Amens ready.

Franklin, the church-raised phenom, was already the Queen of Soul by 1972, with a string of hits, multiple Grammys, and status as a household name. But despite a long history of loving and singing gospel (thanks in part to her father, C. L. Franklin, and to mentors like Cleveland), she hadnt produced a full-on gospel album since Songs of Faith—recorded in her fathers church, New Bethel Baptist in Detroit, when she was only 14. Hence, before it was even recorded, Amazing Grace was monumental. This was one of the greatest artists in the history of music returning to her home turf, filling out the edges of her talent in ways that only fellow churchgoers knew firsthand.

The albums successes speak for themselves: 2 million in sales, for one thing, to say nothing of its drastic re-insertion of black gospel—prominent during the civil-rights movement—into the American mainstream. The album melded genres: gospel standbys by the likes of Clara Ward mixed with Arethas singular interpretations of Carole Kings “Youve Got a Friend,” Marvin Gayes “Wholy Holy,” and the titular “Amazing Grace,” songs which—buoyed along by the Southern California Community Choir and their director, Alexander Hamilton—meld gospel with other genres so nimbly youre convinced the originals must have been gospel in the first place.

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This is an album that needs no visual component, really. But it always had one: there in 1972, running, kneeling, crouching between the pews with a small crew, was the popular American director Sydney Pollack, fresh off of making Depression-era drama They Shoot Horses, Dont They? with Jane Fonda. He had been assigned to film the recording session for Warner Bros. There was just one problem: Pollack and his crew used no clapperboard on set—so when it came time to assemble their finished product, the sound and images were impossible to sync.

And so the film went unseen for decades. Alan Elliott—once an A&R guy at Atlantic Records—mortgaged his home multiple times to buy the footage and, thanks to modern technology, was able to make a movie out of it. There were hiccups; Aretha herself sued to get the film pulled from the Telluride Film Festival. But now, finally, here it is: a rollicking, profound testament, not only to the quality of Franklins performance, which the recording already gave us, but to the intangibles that are better seen than heard.

In Amazing Grace, you watch, in startling, long close-ups, as the singer gears up to lean into the most soaring, difficult passages in her music. You see Cleveland, who accompanies her on piano, stopping midway through the titular song to compose himself; he is weeping. You see the audience practically falling out of its seats; Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts bopping along in back; members in the choir, sitting behind Aretha, who have to stop and stare in astonishment. You see Aretha taking breaks between songs, too—moments that testify, above all, to her consummate professionalism. You can glean, watching her address notes or stop to relax her voice, what this session was about. It is, as Cleveland tells us up top, church. But make no mistake: this, for Aretha, is about committing her masterful interpretations to record with the integrity and passion that her performances deserve.

Its a strange hybrid of a film: a concert movie à la Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz, and comparably astonishing. But its arena is a humble church in Watts County, not the Winterland Ballroom. You get all the noise and breadth of the stadium—Arethas pipes on their own could give you that—but booming in a much more intimate setting, where the audience is much closer, to the point that them being moved by the music becomes a part of the music. Its a church,Read More – Source

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Vanity Fair

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