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Amazing Grace director talks Aretha Franklin

INTERVIEW! After nearly 50 years in the making, Aretha Franklin music documentary "Amazing Grace" is out in Berlin cinemas today. Director Alan Elliott talks the Queen of Soul and how he resurrected the "lost" feature.

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Photo courtesy of Amazing Grace and Weltkino. Catch Amazing Grace in Berlin cinemas now!

Named after the highest-selling gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace is a music doc like no other.  

Commissioned by Warner Bros and filmed in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA by the late Sydney Pollack, the film captures the two-night recording session by Aretha Franklin. The footage was never seen, however, as the film crew failed to use the all-important clapperboard to synchronize the image with the sound. The concert film was “lost” for decades. 

Enter music producer Alan Elliott, the man who Pollack appointed as his successor to the project and who, after nearly 30 years, has managed to bring it to cinema screens. We talked to Elliott about the ins and outs of this laborious journey, and asked him to peel back the layers behind Amazing Grace’s mythos. 

It’s been an almost 50-year journey for this film to see the light of a projector… When did you get involved with the project? 

I got involved in 1990. I was a staff record producer at Atlantic Records, working with my hero and mentor Jerry Wexler. And he casually said one day the film existed. I said that we should just fix it! It didn’t seem like something that couldn’t be fixed. No one at the time really told me what the problem was. At the time, everyone was saying how the sound and image weren’t synched… And 29 years later, there’s a different story! (Laughs)

So the first hurdle was the synching snafu and a lack of technology? 

That’s part of the story. If they had the technology in 1972, the movie would’ve come out in 1972. But they would not have made this movie, because the technology at that time would have precluded what I figure is part of the underlying signature of the film, which is these very long takes that allow for a very meditative experience. In 1972, if you could get the synch together, it wouldn’t hold for much longer than a minute, if you were lucky. A great deal of rock documentaries and music documentaries from that time don’t have long stretches because of the synch. It was such a difficult issue. 

What was the next problem? 

You know, in America, we’re all still glued to the TV set like we were in 1974 for Watergate. Because it’s not really the crime, it’s the cover-up! (Laughs) The cover-up was that there was this problem with the technology. When I talked to Sydney Pollack, he never admitted that the technology was the problem – they created this issue that it was Aretha’s contract that was the problem. And that became a convenient excuse. And the mythos became the dogma that everyone believed. Including Aretha! 

There are so many stories around this film, so many rumours as to why it was shelved for so long. Is it true that Aretha Franklin didn’t want the film to come out and went so far as to sue?

She did, yes. And that’s part of this craziness. I wondered about the contract being an excuse, and at a certain point, I went up to the head of Warner, John Calley, and asked him “Is it true that Aretha didn’t have a contract?” There was a very long pause and then he replied: “Do you think, as the head of Warner Bros studio, that I would send a camera crew, with an Oscar-nominated director, if I knew we couldn’t make the movie?”

So, it wasn’t a contract issue. A real Rashomon effect… 

Yes, and on Aretha’s side, she was hurt that the film never came out in 1972. Diana Ross got to make Lady Sings The Blues, Barbara Streisand made The Way We Were with Sydney Pollack right after they made this… And Aretha never gets to become a movie star. That was the natural next level for her that she was not given access to. I kept on asking her over the years through intermediaries what the issue was. She wouldn’t take any money offered to her and there was never a concrete reason. Any reason, for that matter! 

That must have been frustrating.

Like you said – a Rashomon situation. And because they built a myth that she was the problem, she became the problem! She owned it and she was probably still angry that the film hadn’t been released in 1972. She blocked it. What came about later, in 2015, was that her niece, Sabrina Owens, who’s a partner and producer on the film, said to me that Aretha had pancreatic cancer. And when that was revealed, what came to my mind was that this movie, which I think is a real love letter to Aretha Franklin, could be seen from her angle as a mortality check. And I’m not sure she wanted to meditate on her own mortality, which the film does to a degree.

We do see her at the height of her powers…

Yes, and while the film doesn’t hit you over the head with it, you can feel it. There’s an effortlessness to her effort which is mighty. It’s so transformative. 

Were there any moments in this laborious journey, up until the estate gave you the green light after Aretha Franklin’s passing, where you considered throwing in the towel? 

No. Never. I’ll always remember the conversation I had with Sydney, when he called me and told me he was going to die. He said that he had talked to Warner Bros and that he wanted me to finish it.

That’s some powerful motivation right there. What else about this project made you want to keep going? 

On a very fundamental level, when I was eight years old and I heard the record for the first time, it had great meaning for me. It boils down to if somebody had come up to me and told me: “There’s a Sir Richard Attenborough film of The Beatles recording Abbey Road and no one’s ever seen it, but you can fix it!”, I would say the same thing: “OK, where do I have to go?” Obviously, they didn’t tell me the other side of it, that it would take 29 years! (Laughs) I don’t think I would have signed up for that! All of these revelations – whether it’s the technology, the Aretha contract… – all of these things never felt like they couldn’t be overcome. But looking back in the rear-view mirror, I can tell you there was a lot to deal with, and that’s even before you get to the corporate realities of Warner Bros Films and Music! At the time, they were one company, but by the time I got to them, they were two different companies. And neither of which wanted anything to do with this project. 

Why not? 

They’d moved on, and the record company no longer wanted to deal with Aretha Franklin, as she was not on their label anymore. And the film company didn’t want to deal with the record company… A real mess. 

To talk about the film itself, one thing I loved about it was the lack of embellishment and the absence of talking heads and of traditional documentary tropes. Was that always your vision for this film, that there should be power in simplicity? 

Yes, because I love the record so much, its flow of the record and its energy… Sydney Pollack really wanted to do that talking heads – he said to me: “Let’s go to Quincy Jones’ house and interview Quincy.” I refused and told him that if there’s a film that shows the Reverend Cleveland talking, that’s all we’ll need! I was resolute that we should stay in the room with Aretha.

Do you have a favourite moment in the film? 

Many, but there’s one great moment which is when a woman is recording the music. We cut to her and she’s got her tape recorder. And then we go to the choir. And then we cut back to that woman, and she looks at us and she starts smiling. I always feel that moment in the movie is the moment when we are welcomed into the room, and that this is the place we need to be.

Now that the film has done the film festival rounds and is finally coming out in cinemas, do you feel lighter, like a weight has been lifted? 

Yeah, and it’s great to talk about something that you’re finally able to share with everyone. I know my experience of the movie, having seen it a thousand times, and each time I see it, there’s something else I notice. For whatever reason – the way we cut it, the performances – the movie allows the viewer their own experience in a unique way. And of that, I’m really proud.

Is that it for Aretha in your life? 

(Laughs) Not quite. I’m working on three projects at the moment, and one of them is a six-hour documentary series about Aretha. We’re doing it in a very interesting way, not in the “she was born here” sort of way. There will be six episodes of her life that involved American history, black culture and music. That’s going to be a lot of fun.

Catch Amazing Grace in Berlin cinemas now. Check our review before you head out.