Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace

(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1165.)

In 1972, the late American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Aretha Louise Franklin recorded a live gospel album. Titled Amazing Grace, the production featured the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, with Reverend James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir. Released by Atlantic Records, the double album was both a critical and commercial success, earning a double platinum certification and the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance. To date, it is the top-grossing live gospel music album of all time, not to mention her biggest selling disc in a recording career that spanned fifty-plus years and a discography of over 80 albums.

Much lesser known is the fact that Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack filmed the entire live concert for an intended release on the same year, Mick Jagger cameos included. However, due to all sorts of adversities, the footage remained uncompleted and unreleased for 38 years. Of all the adversities, a simple, yet fundamentally important stands out: Pollack had not used a clapperboard.

Clapperboard

You’ve seen them used in countless films portraying filmmaking. Clapperboards are devices used in filmmaking to assist in synchronizing of picture and sound, which are recorded separately. They consist of a chalkboard surface where the specific scene or take number are written down for future reference, and a ‘clapstick’ that creates a click sound when the operator claps it shut. When captured both on film and audio recording, the clapboard provides a visual and auditive cue that is used to align both elements in post-production.

Little is known as to why Pollack neglected to use a clapperboard during the 20 or-so hours he captured of the performance over the course of several evenings. The studio had originally intended to use a different director, but Pollack’s latest film, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, had just earned him an Oscar nomination for best director, so the studio went for the bigger name instead. Needless to say, not taking such a rudimentary step prevented the film from meeting its expected release date.

As time went by, several attempts were made to complete the project but there were all sorts of legal issues between Franklin and the production team that plagued the production over the course of almost four decades. And let’s not mention that nobody could find the actual signed contract from her to approve the film’s release. With time, and as her career continued to soar, personal interests to get the film completed began increasing to the point of interfering with the process.

Then there were health issues. A connection with Pollack was indispensable, but by the mid-2000s, the director became gravely ill with cancer, losing his battle against the disease in 2008. Franklin had her own health problems as well, which kept worsening until her death, August 16, 2018. 

Aretha Franklin left behind an irreplaceable legacy of music and art around the world. At her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, President Obama commented, “American history wells up when Aretha sings,” after her iconic rendition of Carole King’s song, A Natural Woman. “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”

After her passing, family members had no second thoughts about approving the film’s theatrical release. It is now available for purchase on Blu-ray.

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