He hosts an LA screening of the film, which took 46 years to complete
Filmmaker Spike Lee is unequivocal in his praise for the documentary Amazing Grace, which captures the live recording of Aretha Franklin's gospel album of that name in 1972.
"One of the greatest concerts ever put to film," Lee said of the film at a private screening he hosted in LA Friday night. "We know Aretha is one of the world's treasures -- not just the United States of America, but the world's treasures."
Afterwards he told Nonfictionfilm.com, "It's a spiritual, religious experience watching that." Lee praised producer Alan Elliott, who rescued the film from a decades-long limbo that had made it one of the most famous documentary projects never to be seen.
"My brother right here--he's the one," he said, pointing to Elliott. "I'm putting your business on the street -- how many times you had to mortgage your house?" Elliott joked, "Let's not get into it." Lee continued, "More than once! To get this made."
Lee was not involved in Amazing Grace, but has become a champion of the film. The original concert footage was shot by director Sydney Pollack over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. But Franklin's electrifying performance remained available only to people who bought the live album itself (it became the best-selling gospel album of all time). Pollack's film production ended up something of a technical disaster, with none of the sound synched properly and it was shelved indefinitely.
For decades the film remained unfinished -- just strips of celluloid with no proper track. Elliott said he obtained the film from Warner Bros. in a "quit claim" process, not long before Pollack's death in 2008.
"Sydney went to the studio and said, 'I want Alan to finish the movie,'" he explained to Nonfictionfilm.com. "He did that right before he died. And that was a really powerful thing."
The film was supposed to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2015, but Franklin sued to keep it from being seen. After her death this past August from pancreatic cancer, Franklin's estate gave Elliott its blessing to finally release the film.
Amazing Grace is a late entrant in the Oscar race, having qualified with a limited LA-New York theatrical release lasting just a week. Neon acquired theatrical rights, in a deal announced Friday. Elliott says it will hit theaters on a broader scale in March of 2019, noting, "I think it's going to go pretty wide."
In Amazing Grace, Franklin utters only a few words between songs. But when she sings it's an ecstatic experience -- soaring vocals alternating with passages of subtle phrasing. Franklin, 29 at the time the concert was recorded, is at the peak of her powers. Even her accompanist, the Rev. James Cleveland, is overcome at one point with the stunning impact of her performance.
You can catch a glimpse of it in the trailer:
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.