Almost half a century after it was filmed, the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace will finally screen in theatres, beginning with its premiere on November 12 at New York's DOC NYC Festival.
The film has been dogged with production and legal problems ever since director Sydney Pollack filmed it over two performances at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles’ Watts neighbourhood in January 1972.
Initially, Pollack failed to sync the sound as he was filming, making the footage almost impossible to edit. This in itself is an incredible comedy of schoolboy error: Pollack had already shot five feature films, which been nominated for two Academy Awards between them, by the time he started work on the Franklin shoot. He would go on to win a Best Director Oscar for 1985's Out of Africa, and direct a total of 12 actors in Best Actor-winning roles.
The master film maker failed to employ clapper boards to snap shut between takes. The result was that Pollack ended up with 20 hours of audio and video footage, with no clear link between the two. Pollack's long-time editor William Steinkamp told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015: "[The footage] was like a jigsaw puzzle. We had a team on it, and you'd work on it for a while and give up."
The choir master from the performance was even brought in to try and lip read the footage and sync it manually, but after months of work, only 150 minutes of video footage had successfully been matched up to the sound, and out of that 150 minutes, there was not even one complete song. In June 1972, the concert was released as an LP, and in August, Warner Bros quietly shelved the movie.
The movie resurfaces
The movie seemed all but forgotten for the next three decades. Then in 2007 producer Alan Elliot entered the picture. He'd worked with Jerry Wexler, who had co-produced the Amazing Grace album, at Atlantic Record in the 1990s, and had become fascinated by this mysterious lost film. Elliot spoke to Pollack, who by now was dying from cancer, and the veteran director agreed to speak to Warner Bros about letting Elliot have the footage. Elliot had to mortgage his house to fund his pet project, but by 2010, after two years of intensive work with digital experts at the Deluxe Film Lab in LA, he had finally spliced the disparate audio and visual footage together using the latest technologies that Pollack didn't have access to in 1972.
The film was all set for a wide release in 2011 – a trailer was cut and a test screening took place - but then, another snag. When Elliot had secured ownership of the movie from Warner Bros, he'd successfully tracked down all the release contracts for the footage bar one – Franklin herself. The diva took legal action against Elliot for appropriating her likeness without permission, and the movie's release stalled again.
In 2014, the missing contract turned up at Warner Bros – it hadn’t been with the others as Franklin had actually signed it in 1969, two or three years before most of the supporting artists. Over the next couple of years, the film was scheduled to premiere at Telluride and Toronto, but each time lawyers managed to argue that even with the errant contract in hand, Elliot could still not screen the film without Franklin’s permission.
Franklin estate on board
Franklin died in August of this year, and it seems her relatives don't take quite such a dim view of the film as Franklin seemed to, despite her 2015 claims in the Detroit Free Press that she has seen and "loves" the movie. The movie's release has the full support of Franklin's estate and her niece Sabrina Owens said in a statement this week ahead of the premiere: "Amazing Grace is the heart and soul of Aretha Franklin. This film is authentic and is my aunt at her core. She was a daughter of the church, she loved gospel music, and she always incorporated some form of sacred music in her concerts."
A limited theatre release for Oscar qualification before the end of 2018 is planned, with a wide release for 2019. As the on-screen Franklin might say to the New York audience after a 46-year journey: "I knew you were waiting for me."