Matt said we should see Amazing Grace, the long-hidden documentary film about the making of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album of the same name, in the movie theatre, which turned out to be exactly the right call. A film that’s billed at eighty-seven minutes, but feels, in the best way, much longer, Amazing Grace is transporting musically, spiritually, and politically.
No one has to explain Aretha Franklin’s talent as a singer, and I won’t even try to do it here. I will say that it’s thrilling to see her in the context of an actual church, playing and singing church music, and the ways in which she attends to that context with such reverence and in a spirit of community with the other musicians and congregants. Technically all the artists are incredible, and the common purpose with which they imbue both of the concerts depicted in the film is palpable.
Reflecting on the spiritual aspects of the film (and it hardly seems right to remark on “spiritual aspects”; it’s a spiritual film, period), I’m reminded, of all things, of Friday Night Lights, a television show I really enjoyed. I rarely see church depicted in a grounded, realistic way in popular culture. Not many television shows or films get it right: it’s all too much if it’s taken seriously, or it’s being parodied or pitied as a den of fools. In Amazing Grace, Reverend Cleveland reminds those assembled that they’re attending church. (Maybe most of his congregants didn’t need reminding, but Mick Jagger, who turns up for the second night, might have.) And the people in the film go to church. They have a religious experience. Including Aretha herself, whose sweat and tears are real. And the experience is treated neither with melodrama or arch remove: it’s a beautiful, unguarded look at religious people having a religious experience.
And it’s a look at a particular community in 1972. The congregation is overwhelmingly African-American. There are Afros; there is a Black Power salute from the choir at one point. And the song of a former slave trader is the centerpiece of the film; at another point, we hear a medley of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” the former the foray of a white bandleader into gospel music and the latter a pop song written by a white Jewish woman. With an American flag off to the side of the stage, Aretha and the choir sang beneath a mural of Jesus emerging from his baptism in the River Jordan. The film is a celebration of black music and the black church as part of the fabric of America.
So many faith traditions celebrate new beginnings at this time of year: the resurrection of Jesus in Easter, the protection and preservation of the Jewish people in the festival of Passover, the simple presence of new life in the world as spring begins. If you need a little help getting into that spirit, go see Amazing Grace.