It’s been a year for long-delayed, technologically rescued lost masterpieces. Orson Welles’ seemingly-abandoned, 1970-begun opus “The Other Side of the Wind” was rather impressively cobbled together from the six years of footage Welles was never able to finish. (You can watch the whole, fascinating, autobiographical mess on Netflix, of all places.)
And now, from that same era, you can go to the Portland Museum of Art to see another unearthed cinematic treasure, as PMA Films brings us a big screen presentation of Aretha Franklin’s legendary 1970 live concert film, “Amazing Grace.”
The road to get this film to you is 40 years long, full of perilous twists and turns, and all set in motion by a great director’s stupid mistake. In 1972, the 38-year-old, Oscar-nominated director of “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?,” Sydney Pollack, excitedly snapped up the chance to film Aretha Franklin as she recorded what would become the best-selling gospel album of all time, “Amazing Grace.”
Watch the trailer:
Coming off the massive success of Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock,” Warner Brothers sent Pollock to Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church for two nights of recording what they assumed would be the next big concert film hit. Pollack shot over 20 hours of footage of the high-riding Queen of Soul’s return to her gospel roots, complete with backing from gospel legend the Reverend James Cleveland and the rousing Southern California Community Choir.
In the unostentatious, modestly-sized church hall, a hundred or so fans and parishioners (including Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) were treated to two straight evenings of Aretha Franklin at her height, belting out songs as varied as Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy” to the film and album’s traditional title track. Watching “Amazing Grace” is to see and hear a consummate professional bringing her everything to songs that, as you hear in every soaring note, live in her soul.
Would that Pollack had the same professionalism going on those nights.
Unaccustomed to shooting live concerts, Pollack made a fateful rookie mistake by not instructing his cameramen to mark sound. You know those little black-and-white clapperboards film editors use to sync live sound between multiple cameras? Yeah, Pollack didn’t use those. So when the time came, Warners and Pollack found themselves with reels and reels of live footage of one of the most seminal concerts in gospel history, and they were, essentially, worthless.
Pollack, who died in 2008, went on to a brilliant career, of course. (“Tootsie,” “The Way We Were,” Three Days of the Condor.”) But he never got over his blunder, especially since Franklin’s incipient film career never took off in the wake of his documentary disaster. So into the vault the footage went until, before Pollack’s death, producer Alan Elliott managed to secure the rights – and the updated technological knowhow – to actually complete the thing.
And, sure, there were even more roadblocks along the way to PMA. Franklin herself sued Elliott to prevent the completed movie’s release several times. (Perhaps understandably resentful at yet another example of her being mistreated by the industry.) But Elliott prevailed with the help of Franklin’s estate (who negotiated some long-overdue royalties) and now, a year removed from Aretha’s own death, “Amazing Grace” stands as a monument to one of the world’s greatest singers, caught when her legendary pipes were as rich, full and powerful as they’d ever be. (Not that they ever went away.)
There’s a thrillingly unassuming vibe to “Amazing Grace,” with a minimum of backstage chatter or stage business (Franklin rarely interacts with the audience of the sweltering church). Instead, the assembled film is a document of Aretha Franklin giving herself over to songs of faith that, in her inimitable voice, fairly shake the foundations of the place (complete with its enormous oil painting of a ripped, bronzed Jesus).
Stunning and heartbreakingly young in a white, beaded gown, Franklin occasionally gives way to Cleveland and to her father, minister C.L. Franklin (who accurately praises his famous daughter as “just a stone singer”). But the crisp, 89-minute final film is all Aretha. The music is itself exceptional, naturally. But it’s also compelling to watch Franklin, unheeded sweat rolling down her face, transition from transported to professional and back again as she works with her band and the choir to get each song exactly as she wants it. She halts the inspirational “Climbing Higher Mountains” before restarting the band and making the song the indelible classic it is, largely thanks to her. “Amazing Grace” took a long time to get here, but it was worth the wait.
“Amazing Grace” is playing at PMA Films from Thursday to Wednesday, May 1. It’s 89 minutes and rated G. Possibly for “glorious.” Tickets are $9, $7 for members and students with ID. See the PMA website for showtimes.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starts Friday: “High Life.” French auteur Claire Denis takes on science fiction in this moody, striking-looking film about a father (Robert Pattinson, now firmly shed of his “Twilight” teen rep) and infant daughter as they unravel the mystery of their seemingly doomed and otherwise empty spacecraft as it hurtles inexorably toward a black hole.
The Apohadion Theater
Wednesday, May 1: “Ganja And Hess.” Remember in this column a few weeks back when I said there’s an exciting new cult movie screening series in town? Yeah, this remastered 1973 horror film starring “Night of the Living Dead’s” Duane Jones as an anthropologist-turned-sort-of-vampire is exactly the sort of thing you need to get out and support.