By 1971, Aretha Franklin had recorded over 20 albums, won five Grammys and had had 11 consecutive number one singles.
In early 1972, she went to Los Angles to record the gospel songs she grew up with. The two-night session was recorded in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts and film director Sydney Pollack was hired by Warner Brothers to document the event.
But technical problems, and Franklin's subsequent rejection of the footage, led to it being shelved for nearly half a century.
The resulting album, Amazing Grace, became the bestselling gospel record of all time, but the film appeared lost.
In 1990, Atlantic Records A&R man Alan Elliott heard about the material and set about retrieving and resurrecting the film. It is called Amazing Grace, and will be playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival. He mortgaged his house to get the project to completion.
Elliot began by chatting with Pollack about the film, but things didn’t really go anywhere until 2007 and one of the first technical hurdles they faced was syncing the film to the music.
The problem was that Pollack didn’t use a clapper board.
“And in 1972 you needed that, or you would end up with film that was not synced up with the audio.”
Syncing up the sounds and pictures was going to be a massive task, Elliot says.
Bringing the film to light was further hinderd when Pollack died in 2008.
When Elliot found out Pollack had pancreatic cancer, he picked up the phone, it was a call Pollack had been waiting for - he had told Warner Brothers they needed to let Elliot finish the film. He wished Elliot luck and it was the last time they spoke.
Pollack’s assistant told Elliot, after the film was finally released, that between projects, Pollack would call Warner Brothers and get the footage sent to him so that he could watch it without any sound.
“And I said, well that’s about the saddest story in the movie’s history,” says Elliot.
“He really wanted to get it done and he knew of his importance and he just, you know, had bad luck.”
But when Warner Brothers had boxes of material delivered to Elliot’s house he soon realised there was no rough cut of the film nor was there footage of the interviews – something Pollack said there would be.
They weren’t able to sync anything at all, says Elliot, which opened up a raft of problems for him.
“That was a wave of things that one would never have expected.”
They had to start from scratch.
Despite setbacks, Elliot thought there was never going to be a problem too big to deter him from making the film.
“Knowing the record, and the humour and the humanity the record has, if there had been coverage of most of it [I knew] that this would be an incredible document.”
Franklin however didn’t want the film to come out; she sued Elliot and she sued the film festival where it was due to premiere.
“It was like being hit by a wave…it’s a wave of being hit by a lawsuit by somebody who you’re writing a love letter to. And then the second part of being pulled under by the realisation, many years later, that she had pancreatic cancer and she was suffering from a horrible disease, and that I’d written a love letter but it could also be seen as a eulogy and it might not have been something she wanted to deal with as a certain giant 35mm version of mortality.”
For the better part of three years Elliot worked with a producer, who is also an executive of Franklin's estate, to make sure the final product was a respectful film.
Franklin lost her battle with cancer in August 2018 and Elliot says only reason the film was released was because she passed away.
But when asked by a reporter Franklin said, “I love the movie”, says Elliot.
“I’m quite sure Aretha Franklin wanted to be a movie star, and I’m not sure she ever forgave Warner Brothers Films for messing up that opportunity.”
Amazing Grace will be playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival, details here.