“You can sing for a man for so long. At some point you must sing for God” said Aretha Franklin according to Elias Leight, Rolling Stone. Standing at the pulpit in New Temple Missionary Baptist church, L.A , 1972, sing she did. This was where she chose to record live what was to become the biggest selling gospel record of all time.
The two day event was filmed and directed by Sydney Pollack but has not seen light for nearly 50 years due to a technical problem between sound and picture. Aretha herself was also not happy for the film to come out. It was not clear why but there was a massive close-up of her spots at one point and, let’s face it, who would agree to that?
Reverend James Cleveland, a gospel superstar in in his own right, invited the congregation, (which included a young Mick Jagger!), to be ‘hip to venting the spirit’. I was not sure how hip a modern day cinema audience would be to that, so I had to sit on my hands for the duration and vent quietly.
There was certainly a lot to vent about. Aretha was joined by her band Bernard Purdie, drummer, Cornell Dupree, guitarist, Chuck Rainey, bassist, record producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin and the Southern California Community Choir. Watching Alexander Hamilton direct the choir was a serious reminder that the groove had been around a long time and was not invented by my generation.
Between songs, Aretha seemed impassive and friends have said that she was very shy. Only when she sang did the close-ups show the depth of her feeling. Another costume change saw Aretha shrugging off a fur coat, a gesture in gospel tradition that indicated emotional abandon (Tom Leonard, Daily Mail 2018).
Her father, Reverend C L Franklin, spoke of how, from the age of 11, Aretha had followed him on the road to sing gospel. Her influences at the time were Reverend James Cleveland, Clara Ward (who gave a grand entrance on the film) and Mahalia Jackson.
He tenderly mopped her face during her piano performance while around her, hankies were being thrown at the camera as if to say ‘take that!’ and people were being restrained in true gospel style.
The climax of the film was when she sang ‘Amazing Grace’. The choir had a break at this point and were free to lose their shit. Both Reverend James Cleveland and Aretha sobbed during the performance and he could be seen standing by her holding her hand.
Weird camera angles aside, the film was an uplifting testament to one of the greatest singers there has been.