Was Lost, But Now It’s Found: Alan Elliott on Completing the 1972 Aretha Franklin Music Doc Amazing Grace

Among the many disparate and overlapping interested parties—lovers of soul, lovers of concert documentaries, Sydney Pollack fans, Christians—the news of Alan Elliott’s Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace finally being released is like receiving an invitation to Shangri-La after nearly expiring on a lifelong quest to find it.

Rivaled perhaps only by the Rolling Stones’ infamous unreleased tour documentary Cocksucker Blues (and mirrored—both films capture their subjects at peak artistic flashpoint in 1972, and Mick Jagger appears in Amazing Grace!), the film has gained mythic dimensions over the course of its half-century gestation period.

In 1972 at only 30, Franklin had already left a crater-sized impact in the American pop cultural landscape. She’d picked up five Grammys and debuted 11 No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts. For her 21st album, already her fourth live album, she returned to her roots. Franklin set up shop at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles to record “Amazing Grace,” a double album of gospel standards. Sydney Pollack was hired by Warner Bros. to capture the two night recording session on film, but the footage was never seen. The man who Pollack picked to succeed him in the effort, Alan Elliott, breaks down what happened, how it happened, and why.

Aretha Franklin sings to the choir in Amazing Grace. Image courtesy of NEON

Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why this film wasn’t completed and released by Sydney Pollack and Warner Bros. isn’t elaborated on in the film. Do you know what the original plan was?

Alan Elliott (AE): Well, Woodstock had saved Warner Bros. Film. They were looking for different ways to put together a film company with a record company. I don’t know if they had a plan beyond corporate synergy. There were lots of things like that which had been successful—the Beatles did Yellow Submarine and obviously A Hard Day’s Night, so there was some precedent for artists doing one-off movies or TV specials. They were hoping to get something similar.

MM: So what happened?

AE: The simple answer is Sydney Pollack was not the original director they hired. James Signorelli, who ended up directing all the Saturday Night Live commercials for the show’s first 35 years, he was the guy who was a specialist in syncing video with audio, which was a very specialized skill at that time. Pollack was a favorite of the people inside Warner Bros. at the time. One night he went out to dinner with the studio heads and said he’d like to direct it, and they said sure. They gave him the job. But he failed to really get the right crew, and so they couldn’t sync the audio with the video because they never brought a clapper to the shoot.

They later hired the choir director to become a lip reader as a way of syncing the audio with the video. He was working for a couple months, but they just gave up. They couldn’t get there. They got around 53 minutes of the almost 14 hours of total footage. They didn’t even have one continuous song. It went into Warner’s vaults until 2007, 35 years.

MM: What happened in 2007?

AE: In 2007, I went to Sydney Pollack and said we should try and do this. There may be a fix. No one had told me about the audio problem. He told me it was a problem with Aretha Franklin’s contract. I took him at his word, and we had a bunch of theoretical conversations about how to make this movie. We never got to the actual footage. He got very sick with pancreatic cancer and said to me at a certain point, “I think you know this movie better than I do, and I’m going to have Warner Bros. let you finish it.” It was right before he died.

MM: How did it come together with Aretha Franklin’s estate?

AE: Before Aretha died, her niece and I had become friendly. Sabrina Owens, who is the executor of her estate, and I had been having conversations for a couple years. Right after I’d been sued by the estate in 2015 she told me, “Aretha’s got pancreatic cancer, and I’m telling you this in confidence. Aretha doesn’t want to watch a movie like this if it’s the last thing she does.” We put the movie away for a couple years and we’ve been working together ever since. I went to the funeral and came back a couple weeks later to show them the movie, and we’ve been working in partnership to make sure everyone gets to see it.

Without the hard work of Serge Perron at Deluxe, this beautiful 16mm footage might’ve been lost forever.

MM: Was the audio/video sync made easier because of new technology that has come about?

AE: Completely. It was still a very involved process,  but it took three weeks as opposed to three months, or three years. There were boxes of film, boxes of audio. I was very lucky—one day I called up Deluxe Entertainment Services Group and they said they would help me. There’s a genius guy over at Deluxe named Serge Perron whose main job is to sync video and audio, and he did it. All of it. I had been talking with Michel Gondry about working on the project and he gave me his editor, Jeff Buchanan who is also Spike Jonze’s editor. Together we made the movie.

MM: What felt so powerful about the film to me was the simplicity of the construction. There’s no editorialization or embellishment, just Aretha. Talk me through that decision, and if there was ever a point where a different direction was envisioned for the film?

AE: Was there ever another approach in mind, no. I come from musical theater, and the movie is structured like a musical theater production. At the start of the production you have an introduction of the characters, which goes back to Shakespeare. You know, this guy is the director, here’s the choir master, here’s the choir, and here’s the star. Then you have the premise, which is set up with the “On Our Way” organ introduction. Then in Broadway terms you have what’s called a “I wish” song, which here is “Wholy Holy,” the second song. Then you have a big rousing closing first act song, “Amazing Grace,” closing out night one. You start the second act accordingly. We had “Never Grow Old” as an 11 o’clock number and then you close out on a reprise of “Old Landmark,” where everybody gets to love and get some energy. It’s a good structure that’s worked for musical theater for decades, and so I stole it. MM

Amazing Grace opens in theaters April 5, 2019, courtesy of NEON. All images courtesy of NEON.

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