Post 45: The Amazing Grace of Aretha Franklin

Last week I shared a Christmas message about the uniqueness of “grace” in the Christian religion and about the great gift of persons whose hearts are not based on the “transactional” but on reaching out to others with love and mercy.  Today I would like to draw your attention to an article that appeared in The Washington Post last summer (August 8) by Michael Gerson on “Amazing Grace,” the Sydney Pollack movie about Aretha Franklin’s recording of the hymn. Gerson explains how the notion of grace and forgiveness became “a powerful force for change and justice in U.S. history.” 

After reading Michael Gerson’s moving account of the movie, I did as he recommended and streamed it at home.  The film serves as a wonderful introduction to gospel music and singing, as you partake in an actual two-part religious service and a live recording of, as Gerson points out, the best-selling live gospel album of all time.

From The Washington Post, August 8, 2019:

Over two days in 1972, director Sydney Pollack filmed Aretha Franklin as she was recording the best-selling live gospel album of all time. The setting was the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Franklin was joined by pastor and gospel star James Cleveland, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, and carried aloft by a demonstrative audience.

But it is Franklin who, while hardly speaking a word, dominates every frame of the film (now available in a variety of digital settings). At age 29, she was at the height of her powers, which means the limit of human capability. In the movie, she demonstrates both a supreme confidence in her instrument and an endearing emotional vulnerability. At some points, she is a cool professional with exacting standards. At others, the singing of the sacred songs of her youth (her father was a Baptist pastor) overwhelms her.

Witnessing Franklin, choir and congregation in the midst of a profound spiritual experience encourages something similar in the viewer. The film should come with a warning: contains contagious tears.

At the end of the first day of filming — about halfway through the movie — Franklin sings the hymn “Amazing Grace.” At first, her uplifted face shines with praise and gratitude. But as the phrase approaches, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come,” both Cleveland and Franklin can no longer continue. She sits and cries for a few moments, as the choir takes over the tune. Was she thinking of some personal struggle? Or perhaps the dangers and toils of the civil rights movement, which had delivered the Civil Rights Act, then lost the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to racist violence?

Franklin eventually retakes the pulpit. Cleveland comes to her side and holds her hand, as though they can only bear the weight of the lyrics together. As the memory of peril gives way to forgiveness and, yes, grace, it is a moment as dramatic and meaningful as in any movie.

African Americans found that the religion of their oppressors actually took their side against oppression. And this insight became a powerful force for change and justice in U.S. history.

But perhaps the greatest appeal of Christianity is simpler. It takes seriously both the reality of sin and the possibility of redemption. This is what explains the enduring appeal of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” across every cultural and national boundary. The song was produced during the 1770s by a former slave trader, John Newton. Its lyrics testify to the fact that no one, of any background, is beyond or beneath redeeming grace.

So it is fitting that a song written by a man who had captained a slave ship should have been sung by Mahalia Jackson, who performed at many of King’s rallies and marches. And it is fitting that the hymn is the emotional centerpiece of Franklin’s gospel album, and of the movie about it.

See this film. Pollack’s cinema verité is especially good at revealing the raw emotion beneath familiar music. And it certainly helps when gospel songs are sung in a voice that makes angels jealous. But there is something more at work here: the firm knowledge that ’twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

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