46 Years Later, Aretha Franklin Gospel Film Has a Release Date

LOS ANGELES — One of Hollywood’s holy grails, “Amazing Grace,” capturing what is considered to be Aretha Franklin’s most transcendent gospel performance, is headed to theaters 46 years after it was filmed.

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Brooks Barnes
, New York Times

LOS ANGELES — One of Hollywood’s holy grails, “Amazing Grace,” capturing what is considered to be Aretha Franklin’s most transcendent gospel performance, is headed to theaters 46 years after it was filmed.

“Her fans need to see this film, which is so pure and so joyous,” Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and the executor of the Franklin estate, said in an interview. “And the world needs to see it. Our country, it’s in such a state right now.” She declined to comment on terms of the deal.

Freed from legal entanglements — Franklin, who died in August, sued repeatedly over the years to block its release — “Amazing Grace” will have its world premiere next Monday in New York at Doc NYC, a festival dedicated to nonfiction cinema. To qualify for the 2019 Academy Awards, the 87-minute film will then receive one-week runs in Los Angeles in November and in New York in December. Alan Elliott, one of the film’s producers, said “Amazing Grace” would likely arrive in wide release in January, perhaps coinciding with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday.

“We want to honor her legacy,” Elliott said in a separate interview. “Her artistry and her genius are alive in every frame.”

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most famous films never released. It was shot by Sydney Pollack over two nights in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as Franklin recorded an album that would become one of the best-selling gospel records of all time. The New Yorker called the album, “Amazing Grace,” Franklin’s “most shattering and indispensable recording.”

Anchored by an 11-minute version of “Amazing Grace,” the record includes definitive interpretations of songs like “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a slavery-era spiritual. The Rev. James Cleveland, the pioneering gospel singer, was on hand to introduce Franklin. Mick Jagger sat in a pew toward the back.

But the film recording was mishandled. Pollack, who died in 2008, failed to use clapper boards, a crucial tool in matching sound with filmed images in a predigital era. And he had 20 hours of raw footage shot by five 16-millimeter cameras to sync.

Frustrated film editors at Warner Bros., which financed the shoot, ultimately gave up, having missed the 1972 release of the “Amazing Grace” album. Pollack turned to a new directing project, “The Way We Were,” starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. And the “Amazing Grace” negatives began to gather dust in the Warner vaults.

Elliott, who had been obsessed with the lost footage since working as a music executive in the mid-1980s, ultimately persuaded Warner to sell him the reels in 2007. (He mortgaged his house.) By 2010, digital technology had evolved to a point that syncing film and sound was finally possible.

As a planned release date approached in 2011, however, Franklin sued Elliott for using her likeness without her permission. That started years of legal wrangling, with Franklin and her lawyers blocking Elliott and the Telluride Film Festival from showing “Amazing Grace” in 2015 and 2016, even after deals for her compensation seemed to have been worked out. The singer’s opposition appeared not to have anything to do with the film’s content, which she had said publicly that she “loved.”

“There is just this deep-seated desire for something to not happen right now, so I’d rather just respect her wishes,” Julie Huntsinger, executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, told Variety last year.

Film insiders speculated that the release of the movie, which ends with a young Franklin performing “Never Grow Old,” was simply too difficult for the ailing singer to confront — that she knew it amounted to a eulogy.

Legal clearance finally came after Owens invited Elliott to her aunt’s funeral in Detroit. A couple weeks later, he contacted Owens about restarting talks. “Sabrina said, ‘Why don’t you come and show the movie to the family?'” he said. He flew to Michigan and did just that on Sept. 20. About 25 people were there.

“There was clapping and crying,” Owens said.

Elliott said he spoke to Owens as he left for the airport and she said, “Let’s do it.”

Unless “Amazing Grace” hits an unforeseen snag, its release will mark the second time this year that a film will have made its way to theaters after decades in purgatory. “The Other Side of the Wind,” which Orson Welles left unfinished upon his death in 1985, was completed and shown for the first time in North America at the Telluride festival in September. Netflix started streaming it last week.

Moviegoer interest in “Amazing Grace” will likely be strong. Feel-good documentaries such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” about Fred Rogers, the star of public television’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and “RBG,” which looks at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have lately been ticket-selling machines. Movies built around music have also been doing well with audiences. Over the weekend, the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” arrived to an astounding $50 million in ticket sales in North America.

And the dramatic late arrival of “Amazing Grace” is sure to shake up the race for best documentary at the Oscars. The film’s producers may also try for a best picture nomination.

“Aretha would want us going for a best picture,” Elliott said. “And she’d want to win, too.”

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