“Amazing Grace,” an Aretha Franklin concert film regarded as one of the great lost treasures of both the documentary and music worlds, will finally see the light of day, according to its longtime producer and overseer.
Producer Alan Elliott and the Franklin estate struck a deal to end a three-year dispute and enable the movie to be shown at festivals and sold to distributors, Elliott told The Washington Post.
Elliott said the deal was struck with Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and the executor of her estate. The film will now have its premiere next week at DOC NYC, a popular documentary gathering in New York, and will be shown to distributors for potential release without any apparent legal hurdles.
“We’re excited to finally bring the movie to the public and expose this legacy project — this is the premier document of American popular music that’s ever been filmed,” Elliott said in an interview.
"Amazing Grace” has been seen by scholars as a historic document to which the public has long been prevented access. The movie chronicles a landmark performance the soul great gave of the eponymous double album at a Los Angeles church in 1972. It was originally shot by the Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack. But it remained in the vault for decades, first for technical reasons — technology did not allow the audio and video to sync properly — and then for financial reasons, with not enough money to complete it.
According to Elliott, Pollack had asked him on his deathbed in 2008 to finish the movie, which Elliott did for the following seven years. The former producer, who now is a college professor, also called it “a really interesting tableaux we formed out of shrapnel.”
But Franklin opposed the release and went so far as to get an injunction stopping the movie from premiering at the Telluride Film Festival in 2015 on the eve of its premiere. The Toronto International Film Festival subsequently pulled the film because of the injunction as well. Franklin’s objections at the time were unclear.
A distribution deal with Lionsgate was later mooted after Franklin decided not to sign the papers, and the film was stuck in limbo.
After her death in August, The Post reported a deal could be more likely, though the possibility was complicated by the fact that Franklin left no will.
Endeavor, the Hollywood agency, has been selling rights to the movie, which could garner a significant distribution deal in the absence of any legal hurdle. An Endeavor executive did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for the Franklin estate did not respond to a request for comment.
Thom Powers, the Toronto doc programmer who also runs DOC NYC, told The Post he thought the movie was “one of the great lost treasures of documentary film."
“A lot of us have been following this project for many years and waiting for the day when it would come to light,” he said. “About the biggest thriller I could imagine as a film-festival programmer is to be able to host this and bring it before an audience.” The screening will take place with a conversation between Elliott and the cultural critic Nelson George.
Because of a dispute between Elliott and the Pollack estate, the director’s name was taken off the film. It will premiere without a director.
“Amazing Grace” had earlier been qualified for the 2018 Oscars — essentially, a token week-long release in a theater to enable academy members to nominate it for the year’s biggest prize. The move was somewhat unusual for a film without a distributor. (Distributors like to formulate Oscar plans themselves.) Though the film is most likely a candidate for the documentary Oscar, Elliott said he would like to make a push for top categories, including best picture. “We want to dare the academy to honor Aretha,” he said.
The film does not have a publicist or other rudiments of Hollywood’s Oscar-industrial complex. That is by design, Elliott said, who noted he’d prefer a more homespun campaign.
Elliott had told The Post in August that “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.”
The development is likely to be welcomed by fans and scholars. “Amazing Grace,” which this reporter saw in 2015, contains an intimacy rare for a movie about an icon and also showcases its subject’s incipient talent, all taking place in a church. Franklin performs such gospel standards as Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and gives a religious spin to pop hits like Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.”
At the time of her death, the music publication Billboard extolled the performance it documents as central to the history of American music.
“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 said of the L.A. shows.
“For 11 full minutes she lives in a state of grace, as she sings to the Lord, for the Lord,” the magazine said, “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.”