Finally hitting theaters April 19, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” film was shot in 1972 in conjunction with her best-selling gospel album.
Detroit Free Press
Aretha Franklin’s gospel movie is home at last — on her birthday, no less.
A journey that started 47 years go in a Los Angeles church will make its way to the Detroit Institute of Arts on Monday evening, as “Amazing Grace” gets its long-awaited premiere in the late singer’s hometown.
It’s sure to be a roof-raising sort of night at the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre, where an expected audience of about 1,100 will go to church with Franklin in her 29-year-old gospel prime.
Expected guests include the Revs. Al Sharpton, William Barber II and Carlton Pearson, all longtime friends of Franklin up through her death Aug. 16. The audience will also include about 300 attendees personally invited by the singer’s family.
The remaining 750 tickets were distributed by the evening’s co-presenters: the DIA, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and Freep Film Festival (run by the Free Press).
Monday would have been Franklin’s 77th birthday, and timing was ideal as the movie’s national roll-out plans were crafted by those involved, including the Franklin estate, distributor Neon and producer Alan Elliott, for whom the “Amazing Grace” project has been a years-long labor of love.
“We’ve all been very aware of her birthday coming up, and what sort of events could be done on or around it,” said Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and executor of the estate. “So it was a conscious decision.”
A proposed showing at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where Franklin got her start, was scrapped because of screening logistics in the chapel.
“Amazing Grace” will make its wider theatrical debut April 19, hitting 1,000 screens nationwide. The Detroit premiere is the first of several special events planned around the country ahead of that, including Montgomery, Alabama (March 27), Atlanta (March 27), Las Vegas (March 28), Los Angeles (March 31), New York (April 2) and Nashville (April 9).
Many of them are community events coordinated with black churches and pastors.
Long delayed by technical issues and Franklin’s resistance to its release, “Amazing Grace” captures a two-day gospel session in 1972 at L.A.’s Missionary Temple Baptist Church, where she worked with the Rev. James Cleveland and recorded her top-selling double album of the same name. Filming was overseen by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack.
The Franklin family green-lighted the film’s release after a private screening in September at the Wright museum. Showings in New York and Los Angeles were held late last year to qualify the film for Oscar contention — though it wasn’t nominated — and it has since screened at several international film festivals.
“Everybody’s very excited about it,” Owens said of the Detroit premiere. “It’s an excellent film. It spotlights Aretha in her youth. She was at the pinnacle of her career, but chose to go back to her roots to record this gospel album. It’s interesting to look at her persona from that point to when she passed. She’s very shy in film, a different person. She came to work, to sing, and she’s not real communicative with the audience.”
Friday brought a special edition of the album from Rhino Records. “Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings,” released on CD in 1999, was issued on vinyl for the first time. The four-record set features the full performances from each of the two days at Missionary Temple Baptist.
There’s been plenty of life after death in the Queen of Soul’s realm: A prime-time Grammys tribute show aired earlier this month on CBS, a Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Hudson is picking up steam, and Franklin will be the next focus of “Genius,” the National Geographic channel’s acclaimed biography series.
The family will be on hand March 29 at the 34th Stellar Awards in Las Vegas, where the gospel show will unveil the inaugural Aretha Franklin Icon Award, to become a regular annual honor. The program will air on BET April 19 — the night of the “Amazing Grace” national premiere.
Franklin’s family is confident “Amazing Grace” will make its cultural impact: Owens calls it a “timeless” experience that will stir the passions of music lovers even outside the gospel world. They’ve gotten early validation from critics, whose ratings have clocked in at a 96 cumulative score at Rotten Tomatoes.
“We were delighted to see those reviews. It’s one thing to see (the film) from a family perspective. It’s another to see the professional perspective,” said Owens. “I almost hate to call it a movie — it’s a documentary film, but it’s very powerful and moving. The fact that other people saw it the same way confirmed what we thought all along.”
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