Gasparilla International Film Festival: Amazing Grace (2018) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Imagine hearing that an iconic singer is going to be performing at a local venue that will be rather small and intimate…and, not only can you be there, but that it is being recorded for audio and video, and there is a chance you could be seen as a part of this epic concert documentary. Now imagine waiting 47 years for that video to finally be released, because that artist wasn’t happy with the quality of the footage, and you get the idea of what members of the audience at this iconic Aretha Franklin performance must have felt as Amazing Grace (2018) finally made its way to the big screen.

Amazing Grace delivers a powerful performance from Aretha, but doesn’t offer much else.

Unlike other documentaries, concert films are exactly that; a concert. This film is a performance by Aretha Franklin with a choir recorded at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, back in the ‘70s. She decided to go back to her roots and sing gospel songs, so it made sense to record it with an audience in a church over two separate nights. This film, originally directed by Sydney Pollack and now attributed to Alan Elliott, is the culmination of those two nights with no interviews and the only spoken word coming as instructions from Reverand James Cleveland and Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, discussing her and her talent.

I’m familiar with some of Aretha’s biggest hits, but I have never truly sat down to listen to her perform. By far, her talent is the most breathtaking aspect of this film. No matter the song or her positioning, her ability to project pure emotion is unparalleled. She never speaks to the audience, and we only see a few behind the scenes moments in the film where she gives instructions or something to that effect. However, there is no way to deny her musical ability, and seeing this film has definitely made it clear that I must devote some time to listen to The Queen of Soul.

The downside of this film has to be the camera work. There are multiple shots that are out of focus. At key times, the camera attempts to zoom in on Aretha as she hits a particularly emotional beat in the song or a challenging note, but the effect is a negative one. The jerky zoom serves only to distract from the performance, rather than enhance it. Worse still, the film stock does not appear to have been stored in the best conditions, with some aspects of it having visible damage. The setting didn’t do much for lighting either, as this wasn’t some big stage production, but simply one inside of a small church with the lighting that was presumably already there. Overall, as far as the film elements go, Amazing Grace isn’t…well, amazing at all.

For me, the best part of seeing this movie at the Gasparilla International Film Festival was the crowd around me. Specifically, the young lady who ended up having to sit right next to me because the theater was almost sold out. She knew all the songs – I assume having sung them herself at church – and was nodding and dancing along at every moment. I was compelled to ask her about her experience with the film, but decided to allow her to keep that to herself. It seemed very personal for her, but just seeing her enjoy the film brought a smile to my face multiple times.

Final thoughts…

Amazing Grace showcases the pure talent that Aretha Franklin has, and because of that, is worthy of viewing. However, as far as the medium of film is concerned, this particular entry into its canon does nothing to showcase its ability to transform a normal story into a work of art. Still, no matter how bad the cinematography and simplistic the editing may be, Aretha refused to let any of that stand in her way while delivering a powerful and memorable performance. Amazing Grace earns the Decent Watch rating.

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