Live tonic

   

I HOPE the documentary  Amazing Grace introduces Aretha Franklin to a new generation of fans.

The film features the recording of her live gospel album, Amazing Grace, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972.

Franklin stopped performing outside America in 1984 after developing a fear of flying, so many only know the singer from her musical cameo in The Blues Brothers, her number one duet with George Michael, and tabloid dross about her weight and drinking.

Amazing Grace, filmed at the near-peak of her powers, is a welcome reminder of what made her an American icon.

Backed by Rev James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir and her crack band, Franklin rips through gospel classics in front of a mainly African-American audience over two nights.

There’s literally sweat running down the walls and the audience are out their seats dancing and singing hallelujahs.

Electrifying and uplifting in places, touching and tender in others, it is a real tonic for those who missed live music during the pandemic.

Not just a fantastic singer, Franklin was a great pianist and arranger who skilfully interpreted other artists’ songs and made them her own.

So it’s no surprise to hear amazing versions of You’ve got a friend by Carole King and Wholy Holy by Marvin Gaye.

Her three-octave range is mind-boggling, but every note contains emotion, unlike modern divas whose vocal gymnastics are just for show.

Directed by Sydney Pollack, his cinema verite approach makes everything seem raw and fresh; capturing the slightly chaotic recording sessions and lively crowd.

The audience includes a demonstrative Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in LA finishing The Stones album Exile on Main Street, which interestingly features gospel-tinged songs like Shine a Light.   

The second night was also attended by Aretha’s father Clarence, an American baptist minister, who gives a humorous and touching speech about how she used to practise gospel tunes for hours in their lounge.

Problems with syncing the audio to the 20 hours of footage and squabbles over rights meant the film sat unseen in Warner Brothers’ vaults for decades, before Amazing Grace was finally released in cinemas last year.

Franklin died aged 76 in 2018, but she lived a full life: mother at the age of 12, civil rights activist, 20 number-one R&B singles, and a swathe of honours including the presidential medal of freedom. 

She fused gospel, pop and soul into something uniquely American.

Amazing Grace, recently released on Foxtel, captures her at the near-peak of her powers.

By STEPHEN POLLOCK

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