This is, quite simply, Aretha Franklin performing gospel songs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972, over two nights, with a backing choir and an enthusiastic mostly black congregation, although there are a couple of white celebrities who sneaked in. The music she recorded became a best-selling double album, with the same title, but the film footage shot by Sydney Pollack was abandoned because he hadn’t used a clapperboard and it couldn’t be synched. Nearly 50 years later, technology has solved the problem and we can hear Franklin in her absolute prime. She feeds off her audience. The more excited they become, the more her voice soars.
Aretha doesn’t talk much. She interrupts one song to ask the choir and musical director to start again but there is no badinage between songs. She is there to sing. The Reverend James Cleveland, the ‘king of gospel’, hosts the shows. His role is somewhere between compere, performer and priest. He too has a glorious voice. Late in the film, Aretha’s father, Baptist Minister CL Franklin, makes a heartfelt speech about his daughter. However, we learn relatively little about her other than her genius as a kid for absorbing different musical styles.
The film stands as an astonishing celebration of Aretha. The filmmakers don’t delve into her back story in the style of recent documentaries about Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse. They don’t talk about civil rights or try to place their subject in historical context. The documentary isn’t especially smoothly edited. Apart from one or two uses of split screen, it isn’t formally adventurous either. Pollack died more than a decade ago while Aretha died last year. The filmmakers, who’ve salvaged the material from the archives, take a utilitarian approach to their material. All that matters, they’ve clearly decided, is the music.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall