“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Respect”, “Baby I Love You”, “”Chain of Fools”, “”Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Think”, “Share Your Love With Me”, “Call Me”, “Don’t Play That Song”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Spanish Harlem” and “Day Dreaming” had all been number one singles for Aretha Franklin between 1967 and 1972. Beside them were major hits like “A Natural Woman”, “The House That Jack Built”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “See-Saw”, “The Weight”, “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Spirit in the Dark”, “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Rock Steady”. There were others too.
Putting it frankly Aretha was a big deal.
The First Lady of Music.
The Queen of Soul.
Her father, the Reverend C.L Franklin, was a Baptist preacher and it was in the choir of the New Bethel Baptist Church that she first touched hearts and lifted the spirits of other people. The Gospel tradition and her faith were central to her character and to her music.
At the height of this period in her career she decided that she wanted to make a Gospel record and alongside family friend the Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir she set about recording an album of Gospel songs at the New Temple Baptist Mission in Los Angeles.
The recording of that concert remains the biggest selling Gospel album of all time but now, after over forty years, the footage of the performance (spread over two evenings) has been found, repaired and restored. The result of that is “Amazing Grace” which now must be the greatest concert film ever made.
What elevates “Amazing Grace” above other concert films is that it is something more than a concert film. There are fewer than 200 people in attendance (including Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts), there is no spectacular light show, no rock and very little roll, zero swagger, an absence of attitude and everything is made better because of that.
In the place of the usual rock ‘n’ roll cliches or music documentary trickery there is something much rarer…heart and soul.
Make no mistake this is a spiritual experience.
I am a man who has flirted with faith and belief.
I have found it and I have lost it.
I’ve given “amens” and lifted my voice in praise and thanks to something greater than me.
What is not complicated, what is undeniable, is that the power of the words being sung, the purity of the voice that sings them, the response of the assembled congregation (there is no crowd here) and the knowledge that these songs were responsible for giving hope to a people who were crushed, broken, beaten and who could have been forgiven for being hopeless and it is that same hope that radiates from the screen and the sound system.
On more than one occasion I found myself wiping tears from my eyes, found myself moved physically and emotionally and even found myself clapping a sermon that had been given 12 months before I was born.
This transcends cinema, documentary and concert footage.
This really is being taken to Church.
At one point the Reverend Franklin recounts an experience he had when a woman told him that she had seen Aretha singing on television;
“Oh yes, how did you like it” he asks the woman.
“It was fine” she replied before continuing “But I wish she would go back to the Church.”
“Honey” the Reverend tells her “She never left the Church”.
When his daughter sings “Amazing Grace” you know he isn’t lying.
This isn’t a film that preaches but there is preaching.
This isn’t a film for those with faith but you will have your faith restored…even if that is only in the power of music, in your fellow man or in the notion of hope when things seem hopeless.
Can I get a witness?