The Bizarre History of ‘Amazing Grace’ Documentary on Aretha Franklin

Almost four months after her death, iconic singer Aretha Franklin’s much lauded gospel performance captured in a documentary film titled Amazing Grace has seen light. Fans of the beloved multi-award-winning entertainer know how important this milestone is – this, after the video took more than 40 years to be premiered.

Chaotic Process

Franklin’s notable performance at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts with the choir had been quite a tumultuous ride, with technical and legal matters making it hard for the Sydney Pollack-directed documentary to be shown to the public. It was only recently when Neon announced that it acquired rights to air Amazing Grace in North America and last month the documentary successfully premiered in DOC NYC.

It was also in November when the handiwork was shown in the AFI Fest in Los Angeles as a contender in the Oscars. As for fans eager to see Franklin in what others tout to be the genesis of all gospel performances, they may have to wait until March 2019 for “Amazing Grace” to hit the theaters, although the exact dates are yet to be revealed.

Amazing Grace also embroiled both parties – Warner Bros and Aretha Franklin – in legal troubles. Warner Bros. Pictures planned to release the documentary with the same name as the iconic album which is coincidentally the best-selling compilation from the singer. However, for legal reasons, the plan didn’t materialize and the film was shelved indefinitely.

In 2007, Alan Elliott acquired the rights to release the film, along with other producers, Joseph Woolf, Chiemi Karasawa, Jerry Wexler, Tirrell D. Whittley, Robert Johnson, Sabrina Owens, and Joe Boyd. However, Franklin went to great lengths not to have the film aired while she was still alive. The singer’s family and the production team finally reached an agreement that the documentary would only be aired after her passing.

What Went Down

Syndey Pollack, who directed the “Amazing Grace,” made it a point to remind the production team to finish what was once shelved before he died

Elliott, despite Franklin’s rigorous efforts to shut down the film, made it a point to do everything in his power to bring the project to fruition. The production team’s effort were finally successful after the the audience, including notable who’s-who in the industry, seemed very happy with the outcome, except for the technical bit, which critics  call a terrible disaster.

Many noted how the sound didn’t sync with the actual video, making it hard for the audience to understand the context of the film. This made Elliott hire Alexander Hamilton, the choir director, to link the audio with the visuals, but it was so difficult that the film was temporarily shelved while Pollack decided to focus on other projects.

A long time passed and Franklin’s massive influence on the culture and the music industry compelled the director to finally release project. By 2007, a year prior to the death of Pollack, he and Elliott decided to resuscitate the project.

Pollack first went to Warner Bros. to discuss the project which finally finished in 2015. After the chaotic, tedious, and long process, Amazing Grace was finally gracing the screens, but wait, one significant person didn’t want that to happen: Franklin.

The logic behind this, as per the producer, was that the Queen of Soul was already unwell and seeing the project that was supposed to catapult her to stardom made her upset. Franklin died on Aug. 16 this year after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Aretha Franklin may have passed away but her influence on the music industry continues to be celebrated to this day

Warmly Welcomed

But all the mess aside, its dramatic premiere last month gained praises and was obviously more than warmly received. One of the avid fans of the film was director Spike Lee, who described the movie as the “greatest concert” ever filmed. He recently hosted an exclusive screening of the film, and there’s no doubt where the vivid description came from.

“Amazing Grace” chronicles a 29-year-old Franklin during her outstanding, hair-raising performance with a choir in the mentioned church. There, she can be seen singing “Wholy Holy,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Never Grown Old,” among many others. At her age, she was no-brainer at the height of her musical career.

“Amazing Grace” gives fans an inside look on Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance

Although “Amazing Grace” had traveled for quite some time before reaching its final destination, critics say it packed even more excitement from the audience. Moreover, the whole experience highlighted how Franklin has ever been timeless, particularly as her voice puts utmost importance to the role of the church to the African-American.