It took me nearly 50 years to see this footage. At 72, I wasn't sure I was going to make it. When this album was released, fans of Ms. Franklin flocked to buy it so we could hear her return to her roots: Gospel, not performed on a stage but in the setting where it originated, in two performances gathered at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. In the liner note was the teasing notation, "filmed by Warner Brothers," and it was maddening (in days long before the Internet) not to be able to find out when and where it would be released as a film. Decades later we learned that it was impossible--with technology available then--to sync up the sound with the film footage and the project had been permanently shelved. The young director, Sydney Pollack, hadn't realized each reel needed a time clapboard for editors to find their way in assembling the footage to properly slate with the live sound recording. Not only that, but Franklin never wanted the film footage to be released (there was heavy post-editing in the audio's final release). So it was with a thunderbolt when we heard people had been working frame by frame to put the sound back in sync with the images (when you watch the film, just imagine what it would be like for an editor to be handed a 10 minute reel and be told "guess where this fits in"; and Pollack used 5 cameras to catch all that was going on with a reported 20 hours of unmarked footage). It's a miracle to have this film in any form, and not only that but that the director(s) stayed out of the way of what was happening, no fancy edits, or commentary. Nothing but this woman transcending herself and her audience into spiritual ecstasy. The album only hints at what we finally get to experience. But any performance, much less an entire concert by Ms. Franklin from this era is a gift. She's at her peak and her naturally shy demeanor that masks one of the greatest voices in history peels away and without histrionics or showmanship, she becomes an instrument of her faith. It's exhausting to watch; and, if you're so inclined, transforming. While the filmmakers handle all of this beautifully, the participants intrude (as they do on the recording), trying to upstage the central reason for this performance. Both the Reverends James Cleveland and her father, C.L. Franklin nearly maul Ms. Franklin either physically or with obsequious lengthy praise. In fairness they have every right to show their pride, but it lessens them. (The choir director, Alexander Hamilton serves the evening much better with his graceful shaping of the choir that's almost a dance but it doesn't distract from the either the soloist or the choir.) Aretha Franklin, with unparalleled poise and professionalism endures it all without a flinch. She's there to do a job, seems oblivious to the cameras, while using a vocal instrument with a power not seen before or since.
Documentary / Music
Documentary / Music
A documentary presenting Aretha Franklin with choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972.
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September 24, 2019