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Aretha’s Grace

2 February 2019

Not exactly to do with books, but PG will exercise a bit of editorial privilege because he enjoyed reading the OP.

From The New York Review of Books:

The queen’s power dwells in her silence. That’s not what one expects to learn from a film about an almighty singer whose voice created a score for several dramatic decades of American life, and who will be ever defined by the way that voice made people feel. But it’s one of many striking revelations about Aretha Franklin in a new film that stars her, a film that is extraordinary in part because of the sense in which it’s not new at all.

Amazing Grace, Franklin’s double album released in 1972, saw the soul-pop superstar return to her “gospel roots”—on her own terms and with the aim less of returning to church than of tying its songs to her search for roots of a different kind; on the cover of the album she wears an Afrocentric gown. Made up of old spirituals and newer tunes lent Old Testament weight, the album went on to sell two million copies. The film of the same name documents its making. It captures Franklin—along with a crack band, a soaring choir, and a church full of exultant congregants in South LA—pouring her sweat and self into gospel classics such as “Precious Lord” and “The Old Landmark” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep” over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts.

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The footage it uses was shot by a young Sydney Pollack. But the finished film was no more completed by him than Aretha Franklin “didn’t want you to see it,” as you may have read after its triumphant unveiling in New York late last year. The singer did file a lawsuit, during the Telluride Film Festival of 2015, to delay its release.

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It was a few hours before the film’s would-be premiere for a few hundred of us there, including a coterie of the movie’s lesser-known performers and makers who’d made the trip to Telluride, that word arrived from over the mountains: Franklin sought an injunction in federal court in Denver to forestall a film that—notwithstanding her old contract assenting to its making—she said represented a breach of “her rights to use and control her name and likeness.” When potential distributors offered the amount of money she wanted, she in fact agreed to the film’s release. But a series of deals fell apart for reasons including the fact, unknown by many of the lawyers and agents trying to get her on the phone, that she had pancreatic cancer. And then, last August, the Queen of Soul died, aged seventy-six.

Elliott flew to Detroit for her funeral. Over years of trying to win the star’s blessing to release the movie, he had befriended her family, and he and Sabrina Owens, a niece of Franklin’s who is now handling her estate, arranged for a screening of Amazing Grace for Franklin’s heirs and kin. They readily agreed that her memory and legacy could only benefit from this superlative portrait of the singer at her absolute peak, performing the songs that made her.

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[P]art of the film’s power is the setting: a humble church, housed in an old neighborhood cinema, that’s filled with neighbors and friends and family of the performers. Their response to this music—their music—is authentic indeed. Authentic, too, is the tenderness glimpsed between Aretha and her father, the august preacher C.L. Franklin, when he joins the proceedings to wipe sweat from her brow under Pollack’s hot lights, and the emotion that grips the Reverend James Cleveland, the gospel maestro who taught Aretha piano and serves as the session leader. In the midst of his former pupil’s sublime rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Cleveland leans over his chair in sobs.

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“If you want to know the truth, Aretha never left the church!” C.L. Franklin’s memorable exclamation on the album, we learn from the film, was uttered on the second night of recording. We watch him enter the church with his bouffant-coiffed and stole-wearing companion, the gospel legend Clara Ward, and it’s her song, “How I Got Over,” that they watch C. L.’s daughter perform. Rising from his seat in the front row, the Reverend Franklin is a debonair figure in a royal blue suit, his hair slicked straight, his cadence mesmeric as he extols her gift (“not only because Aretha is my daughter; Aretha’s a stone singer”) and emphasizes that she’d never left Jesus. True, too, was his insistence that he bore no hostility to black music of the non-God-fearing kind. “Some church people didn’t approve [of] the blues,” Franklin later told the scholar Jeff Todd Titon. “But they didn’t understand that it was part of their cultural heritage.”

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Watching Jagger watch Franklin sing for James Cleveland and Clara Ward, one can’t help but ponder the difference between her musical backstory and that of the British lovers of black American music. They shaped the zeitgeist by adoring such luminaries from afar, rather than learning from them, as Aretha did, in her own living room. But one is struck, also, by gospel’s capacity to absorb and make its own the repertory of the culture at large (and not only because Aretha liked the songs of Carole King). The film captures the song that accompanies Alexander Hamilton as he leads the choir up and down the sanctuary’s aisle: George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

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3 Comments to “Aretha’s Grace”

  1. Wonderful. Thanks, PG.

    Dan

  2. video: Wow

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