In September 2015, I stood in a long line of movie critics anxiously awaiting the much-anticipated Amazing Grace. We never saw it. The mythology surrounding the film was practically a movie unto itself. In 1972, Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack (The Way We Were, Out of Africa) reportedly had filmed a jaw-dropping live performance of Aretha Franklin inside a Baptist church in the riot-torn Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Forty-seven years later, we now know for a fact that Franklin's 1972 performance was extraordinary because a recording of the event won a 1973 Grammy award, and went on to become the highest-selling gospel album in history. But, whatever happened to the film?
Rumor had it that Pollack struggled for decades to synch his film footage, shot on 16mm cameras, with his audio tape soundtrack. Pollack died in 2008, but music producer Alan Elliott employed 21st-century sound editing tools to complete Amazing Grace, a film that he promised would be a "masterpiece." There was even a private screening of the film in 2010 and a promotional trailer was prepared in anticipation of a scheduled release sometime in 2011. But then, Franklin sued Elliott for "appropriating her likeness without her permission." A stunned Elliott scrambled, digging through Pollack's original notes. Alas, Elliott found contracts signed by everyone involved in Amazing Grace except, stunningly, the Queen of Soul herself. A dejected Elliott promised not to screen the film without Franklin's permission.
Fast forward to 2014, when Elliot claimed he had finally unearthed a contract signed by Franklin, but she insisted that the piece of paper was a personal services contract that she signed in 1969. Elliot argued that the contract with Warner Bros, producers of the album and the film, gave him a green light to finally screen Amazing Grace. But in the fall of 2015, a judge slapped the Toronto and Telluride film festivals with an emergency injunction, thus halting the film's premiere and leaving audiences and critics (me included) perplexed.
Three years later, we all mourned the passing of Aretha Franklin when she died in August 2018, at the age of 76. Some thought that Amazing Grace, the film, would remain in a vault; but soon thereafter, Franklin's surviving family members came to an agreement with Elliott. In fact, the ink on that contract was barely dry in time for the film's world premiere at last November's Doc NYC Festival. No details were ever released regarding the terms of the contract with Franklin's heirs.
I'm happy to report that I have, at last, seen Amazing Grace, and it is (pardon me for being so obvious) amazing. My immediate response was that this is a film that truly needs to be seen. It's a testimony to one of the greatest artists of her or any other generation. Additionally, it's a time-machine window into a moment of American social and musical history.
Having said all that, the ethical questions surrounding Amazing Grace remain. Franklin went to her grave with the distinct wish that the film not be screened publicly. For the record, she once told The Detroit Free Press that she had actually seen a copy of the film and liked what she saw.
"It isn't that I'm not happy about the film, because I love the film itself," she told the Free Press in 1975. "It's just that—well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems."
Making matters a bit more melancholy, at least for me, is that Elliott has given himself the following billing in Amazing Grace: "Realized and Produced by Alan Elliott." The name of the late Pollack, meanwhile, appears with a list of other people who are given "Special Thanks" in the film's final credits.