For nearly a half-century, footage of a signature performance by Aretha Franklin has been locked in a vault, stuck in legal limbo as fans waited for a release that never came.
Now the wait could be coming to an end.
Franklin died Thursday at age 76 after a long battle with cancer. Her death could set into motion events that finally makes the film available to the public.
The movie, “Amazing Grace,” documents Franklin’s iconic performance of the eponymous live double album at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972. Shot by Oscar winner Sydney Pollack, it had been mired in technical and legal limbo for years -- until a record producer-turned-UCLA professor named Alan Elliott completed it over a seven-year period after Pollock’s death in 2008. He prepared to show it at the 2015 Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
But the weekend it was set to be shown at Telluride, Franklin successfully blocked the screening of the film, winning an injunction in Colorado against the festival. In the wake of the injunction, the movie was shown to industry buyers at Toronto but not screened for the public. To this day it has never been seen.
Franklin’s death, though, has raised the possibility the film could be shaken loose via an agreement with Franklin’s family. A person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivity to the singer’s death said there will be new negotiations that could result in an agreement — and possibly even a deal with a distributor to release the film this Oscar season.
After the injunction, Lionsgate agreed to acquire the film for nearly $3 million. Franklin was promised $1 million, but she declined to sign any contracts. The deal fell apart, and the movie’s rights reverted to Elliott. (Owing to a legal dispute with Elliot and the director’s estate, Pollack is no longer credited as the director.)
A 2018 release of “Amazing Grace” would potentially serve as a cinematic tribute to the late singer. The film, which this reporter saw in 2015, has a majestic but informal sweep, serving as a soaring concert film and a document of a singer’s inchoate talent. The effect is heightened because the show takes place in a church.
In the movie, Franklin puts her own spin on such classics as Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and even infuses shards of pop hits like Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” with religious fervor.
Franklin’s objections to the film’s release during her life were unclear. Telluride director Julie Huntsinger said at the time of the injunction that the musician had no reason to dislike the movie.
"It's a beautiful film,” Huntsinger said. “She looks great in it. She should be proud of it."
Franklin was known for her wariness of legal agreements and payments not made directly to her in cash. In a 2016 profile in the New Yorker, the magazine’s editor David Remnick described the payment process for one performance:
“On the counter in front of her, next to her makeup mirror and hairbrush, were small stacks of hundred-dollar bills. She collects on the spot or she does not sing. The cash goes into her handbag and the handbag either stays with her security team or goes out onstage and resides, within eyeshot, on the piano."
He quotes a Franklin friend, the media personality Tavis Smiley, as saying that it “It’s the era she grew up in — she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B.B. King, get ripped off. There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”
It is unclear whether Franklin left a will, or if there are any directives about the film in it.
Reached by The Washington Post on Thursday, Elliot sent along a statement: “Ms. Franklin said ‘I love the film.’ Unfortunately for all of us, she passed before we could share that love. 'Amazing Grace’ is a testament to the timelessness of Ms. Franklin’s devotion to music and God. Her artistry, her genius and her spirit are present in every note and every frame of the film. We look forward to sharing the film with the world soon."
Executives at Telluride and Toronto did not comment Thursday. Franklin’s chief spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Quinn, did not respond to a request for comment.
The consumer appetite for “Amazing Grace” was quickly on display Thursday. Just hours after her death, many entertainment publications were writing odes to the audio of the performance and the event’s larger atmosphere.
“For all the historic moments that she helped soundtrack and elevate over the span of decades, it was the pair of concerts delivered at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972 that rank as her finest hours,” the magazine Billboard wrote of Franklin.
Then, noting her performance of the title track, it added a few spiritual superlatives.
“For 11 full minutes she lives in a state of grace, as she sings to the Lord, for the Lord, letting his light and his love fill her body and soul, and then sending it pouring out into the microphone placed inches from her face and into the ears of the people sat rapt before her in the pews, and those listening months later at home or in their car, for all eternity."