The Strange Journey of Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace' Documentary

A still from 'Amazing Grace'
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Neon

On April 5, 2019, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace documentary entered general release, coming eight months after The Queen of Soul’s passing, five months after its premiere at the Doc NYC festival, and 47 years after it was originally filmed.

Yes, you read that last figure correctly...and if you don’t know the story about why its release took so long, well, we’re here to tell you.

Once upon a time in either the very late ‘60s or the very early ‘70s, Joe Boyd, the director of music services at Warner Brothers, pitched the idea of filming the making of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album, originally suggesting that the project be directed by James Signorelli, best known today for helming the film segments for Saturday Night Live from 1976 through 2011. In the end, Ted Ashley, the CEO of Warner Brothers, went to Sydney Pollack, who said “yes” because it was Aretha. Filming took place on the evenings of Jan. 13-14, 1972, at Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, with Pollack capturing 20 hours worth of raw 16 mm footage over the course of the two nights.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that Pollack’s decision to bypass the use of clapperboards had made it difficult to sync the audio to the film, so the project was shelved and the footage was placed in a vault. Fast forward to 2007, when producer Alan Elliott purchased the footage. Between the efforts of sound editor/mixer Serge Perron and editor Jeff Buchanan, an 87-minute cut of the film was successfully compiled, and although it took a fair while for them to put it all together (and that’s an understatement), they finished product was set for a 2011 release.

Unfortunately, it was at that point when Aretha hit Elliot with a lawsuit, claiming that he had appropriated her likeness without permission. Weirdly, this occurred not long after she’d told The Detroit Free Press that she’d seen and loved the movie, but Elliott - who couldn’t find Franklin’s original contract for the film - had little choice but to agree not to show the movie without Franklin’s explicit permission...until 2014, that is, he found the missing paperwork, at which point he felt confident that he was in the right. Unsurprisingly, Franklin’s attorneys disagreed, and when Elliott took a big swing the following year and made plans to screen the film at three major film festivals, Franklin was granted an emergency injunction that shut down the planned screenings.

Finally, in the wake of Franklin’s death in 2018, Elliott’s team and Franklin’s family reached an agreement to release the film, starting with the aforementioned Doc NYC screening in November 2018 and the general release on this date in 2019.

If you’ve never heard Aretha’s Amazing Grace album, which went on to become the greatest selling gospel album of all time, then you must remedy that situation, just as you must see the documentary about its recording. Oh, how sweet the sound...

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