Review: Amazing Grace (2018)

Amazing Grace is one of those mythical works of cinema that will forever be known as much for its troubled production and release as it is for its quality. Released over 40 years after being recorded in 1972, this is a simple concert film, a look at Aretha Franklin as she records both the best selling album of her own career and the best selling gospel album of all time.

This is an interesting document – it seems most of the truly legendary musical acts of the 20th century have at least one major cinematic work, and we have finally been graced with Aretha’s. It’s clear from looking into the production issues that a lot of time and effort was poured into making this presentable. But I can’t help but feel there’s something lacking – as nice as it is to see Aretha perform, it feels all too basic.

This film falls more on the Stop Making Sense end of concert films, sticking almost entirely on the performances. What makes Stop Making Sense one of the all time great films is how Talking Heads incorporates visual ideas into their performances – the slow addition of band members through the beginning, David Byrne’s massive suit, his frankly bizarre dancing. Amazing Grace lacks that visual spark, largely consisting of Aretha either sitting at a piano or standing at a podium. There are a few fun audience shots here and there, but that’s to be expected.

Standard isn’t too big of a sin – Aretha Franklin is one of the best musicians of the 20th century, and simply having such a recording is important for historical purposes. But I’d say this is far from one of the great concert films – it doesn’t help that, while being her apparent best selling album, Amazing Grace isn’t exactly what I think of when I think about Aretha Franklin. It’s so singular and niche, it really doesn’t capture the scope of her career. As Reverend James Cleveland says near the start of the film, Aretha Franklin could bring her energy to pretty much any song – there is power here, even to a non-religious person, through her phenomenal skill as a vocalist. But everything is so sedate in this setting that I really wish we could have a similar film where she tackles her popular classics.

Because it stays so focused on the music, there isn’t much information to be gained. The Reverend and her father both speak a bit about Aretha’s life, but it’s all rather simple information.

I don’t really have much more to say on this one – if you want to not just hear but see Aretha Franklin perform, this seems like the perfect release. But I’m not sure how much weight I would put on it otherwise. Because it chronicles a rather specific part of her career, I couldn’t imagine using this as an entry point for a new listener, which I could with something like Stop Making Sense. For Aretha, I think it’s best to give I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul a spin – Amazing Grace is simply a fun extra detail for those who really adore The Queen of Soul.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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