Monday, April 29, 2019

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
seen @ AMC Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

Aretha Franklin is gone, but her music will always be with us. There have been many 20th century vocalists of raw talent and uncanny skill, but Aretha was in a class by herself, fusing her gospel roots to rhythm and blues to create a pop sound unlike anything that came before, one that paved the way for Whitney and Mariah and Beyoncé and Adele and just about every pop diva of the last forty years.

In 1972, Aretha returned to gospel to record a collection of spirituals with a choir and a band at an LA Baptist church. The result was Amazing Grace, an album that became the biggest-selling gospel record of all time. There should have been an accompanying film, but it didn’t happen right away, for a number of reasons, until now.

This one wasn’t on my short list, although I had heard of it. I saw it with Ann, whom I’ve mentioned here before —Virginia’s friend who has since become mine, too. Ann’s original companion had to cancel unexpectedly, so she asked me along instead. Like Virginia, she’s a singer of classical music, or “early music,” as they call it — and watching this movie with her made me very conscious of the recent exposure I’ve gotten to religious music.

Over the past year-plus, I’ve watched Virginia perform in a number of choirs, in churches all over New York, singing hymns (as well as secular tunes) from the 17th and 18th centuries, and beyond. I remember thinking initially that this kind of music, stirring as it is, can’t compare to contemporary gospel. I was not raised Baptist, but I’ve certainly seen and heard enough to be familiar with how a typical black choir sounds: raucous, emotionally charged, electric. Both performers and audience are connected and the result is a physical, tangible thing.

The hymns found in early music, by contrast, are typically sung by a chorus that stands perfectly still, sheet music held under their noses, amidst the Gothic architecture of a church with high ceilings and gravid crucifixes (and watching them while sitting in uncomfortable pews!), all meant to impose the solemnity of the occasion and the Deep Meaning of Jesus Christ’s life and death and resurrection (if you believe in that stuff). I mean, seriously, you can’t even applaud after every song. I never know when I’m allowed to and when I’m not and that always bugs me.

Now some people might disagree with that simplification, and the truth is, I have enjoyed the services I’ve seen Virginia in — sometimes I imagine I can even pick her out amidst the chorus, and that always pleases me — but then I watch something like Aretha’s performance in this movie and the difference is like night and day. How can early music compare?

I asked Ann this question after the movie, and her answer was simple: she’s listened to early music long enough to recognize the beauty within it as a separate thing from contemporary gospel. She’s never sung gospel, knows she wouldn’t be able to, and while she recognizes how good it is, it doesn’t take away from her appreciation of the kind of music she prefers. That makes sense — I can listen to, Nine Inch Nails without it taking away from my appreciation of, say, Dusty Springfield — but I haven’t quite reached that point yet in this particular case.

You’d find it tough to disagree after seeing Grace. The 1972 footage, shot over two nights by Sidney Pollack, presents us with an Aretha quite different from the one we’re used to seeing. Decked out in white on the first night, walking down the aisle of the church not unlike an angel, she defers to the MC, the Reverend Doctor James Cleveland, who conducts the service with a combination of solemnity and showbiz hucksterism. On the second night, Aretha’s own preacher father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, speaks from the pulpit for a moment. At another point, during the performance, he takes a rag and pats his daughter’s face as she plays the piano and sings, which struck me as quite tender.

Aretha is one with the music. I don’t think you have to be a believer to sense the connection, though I wasn’t as moved as, say, Rev. Cleveland was during one point in the film where he has to sit down, his head in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion at hearing Aretha’s voice. The choir, which Ann said she was particularly thrilled with, not only supported Aretha but urged her onward during her best solo moments. Basically, every black choir cliche can be found here — the sweaty singers, the gesticulating conductor, the audience members going nuts — except it’s all real. And damn, Aretha was only 29 when she did this! Is it any wonder she was revered as a legend in her own time?


  1. 29! I generally think of Aretha of ageless; she just "is." Yet that adds a perspective that adds to the inspiration. I shall certainly see this documentary.

    Ann expressed it very well. The approach to music is one I have to movies. Accepting what is without comparison or looking for what isn't there.

    Two of my favourite classical singers, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle did an album of spirituals a while back. Also a different perspective.

  2. Yeah, like I said, I’m still trying to appreciate early music on its own merits. It’s gotten easier lately. There’s a YouTube channel of Baroque music I’ve subscribed to, for instance, that I listen to now and again, and Virginia lent me a book about it, though I haven’t started it yet and it’s more of a scholarly text than a casual read. I’m making some room.


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