Film still courtesy of NEON.

In the living room with Aretha and James and C.L.: Review of Amazing Grace

We hear Aretha Franklin sing in Amazing Grace, but do we see her?

Of course, Aretha tore the house down in Amazing Grace, just listening to the live album that preceded the film by several decades told you that. Amazing Grace the album is still the highest selling live gospel recording of all time. But you don’t come to the film to see if Franklin can blow, you came to see how she did it. Still, many early film reviews focus on how revelatory her performance is. By the time I saw Amazing Grace, I sought a different kind of revelation, not of her mastery as a singer, but of how she interacted with the other players. What I found was a star whose shine was blocked by friends and family literally stepping into her light.

I saw Amazing Grace twice, once by myself, and a second time with two other Black women, to verify what I saw. Did Rev. James Cleveland, master of ceremonies at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, which was hosting Aretha Franklin’s two-night concert in 1972, grip the back of her dress while she was singing Amazing Grace? Seconds before, Cleveland was below Aretha, accompanying her on the piano as she sang from the raised platform of the pulpit. Suddenly, he was at Franklin’s shoulder, yanking her dress just above the middle of her back. From accompanying to encircling her in an instant that would be hidden had the camera not revealed it, Cleveland was holding her secretly in a way that my friend called her “worst nightmare.” The camera collapsed time and space, just as Cleveland collapsed the 29-year-old singer into the shape of the girl he had helped to form.

Cleveland’s grasp was familiar, familial, and not exactly friendly. It was possessive in the way that men are of women and adults are of children. His re-centering of himself is part of a long tradition of Black men limiting the role of Black women in church. At church, female choirs can be the main attraction, but the male pastor must remain the star. Aretha’s stardom made her the Franklin with the “Golden Voice” that the world knew, but her pastor father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, already held that mantle in the Black community. And yet, Aretha could preach. In fact, according to her bassist, Chuck Rainey, the best part of rehearsing for the show was hearing Aretha intersperse her singing with preaching. For all its cutting away to hidden moments, the film cheats us of the truly eye-opening experience of witnessing that version of Aretha.

“We see what we expect to see. Reviewers have remarked on Aretha’s soaring vocals, but not on Cleveland’s restraining hand.”

Singing isn’t talking, though, and Franklin rarely speaks in the movie. Instead, James Cleveland speaks for her, introducing songs with anecdotes about young Aretha and teasing applause out of the crowd at the end of the first night with a “Can she sing or what?” Except Aretha had been performing for a decade by the time she took the stage that night. She did not need a hype man or an emcee. She needed no introduction; she was who everyone had come to see. Cleveland’s ventriloquism made Franklin seem like a guest at her own concert, except for when she was singing. What memories did Aretha have of the songs? We don’t know. Director Sydney Pollack, whose failure to synchronize the sound and image delayed the film’s release for 26 years, often shot Franklin right below her jaw when her voice soared, lips and microphone filling the frame. That visual device dramatized how her voice filled a space, but it also severed Franklin from the rest of her body. She became the sound coming from her mouth, not the person singing the song. Rainey says as much, complaining that the film treats Franklin “like she was wallpaper.” He figured that this was why Franklin never liked the movie and fought to prevent its release until her death took the decision out of her hands.

We see what we expect to see. Reviewers have remarked on Aretha’s soaring vocals, but not on Cleveland’s restraining hand. Indeed, Franklin’s voice and body tell different stories in the film. Her voice is urgent, confident, transcendent. Yet, her body is still, her face frequently blank, seemingly disconnected from the emotions that her voice stirred. Her serious expression could have conveyed concentration, as some critics have remarked. The film shows a singer at work, not a five-time Grammy award winning diva returning to church for her coronation as the Queen of Soul. And yet, it is a return to church, singing songs, as Cleveland notes, that she knew before “she knew how to talk.” She knows these songs; she and her band had been rehearsing with Cleveland’s choir for a month before the performance. Franklin’s faraway, closed-eye expression throughout the movie might have been the spirit using her. But she might also have been burdened by more worldly concerns.

Aretha’s father attended the second night show, sitting up front beside another luminary, gospel great Clara Ward. Franklin senior’s arrival changed the movie’s visual economy once again, pinging between Cleveland on the piano, Aretha in the pulpit, and C.L. at the foot of the stage. Aretha seemed affected by her father’s arrival, and not necessarily in a good way. She faltered for the first time, restarting “Climbing Higher Mountains,” a song, according to Cleveland, that “Rev. Franklin made famous,” after only a few notes. Aretha found her footing, though, electrifying the crowd to the point that several women danced to the front of stage as if commanded by the spirit. Franklin’s otherworldly power could not have been more evident as when the whole church rocked at each dip and dive of her voice. Her power was on display in quieter songs, too, like when she turned each word in “You Got a Friend/Precious Lord” into a statement, a sermon: “You. Got. A. Friend. In. Jesus.”

Like Cleveland, Rev. Franklin recalled the Aretha he remembered from the past, before she was an international star. When invited by Cleveland to make a few remarks, he reminisced that he was “impressed with that intangible something that is hard to describe” that was present in Aretha’s singing at a very young age. “It takes me back to the living room,” he continued, “It takes me back to when she was 6 and 7 years old, it took me back to when we went on the road singing gospel.” Franklin was a grown woman with four young children in 1972. Yet, the men from her childhood kept returning her to the time when she was a little girl, when she was “in the living room” absorbing lessons on gospel from the likes of James Cleveland and Clara Ward. Aretha, for her part, played the role of dutiful daughter, looking up shyly from her seat as her father spoke of her, as Cleveland did, as though she were absent. “Aretha is just a stone singer,” Rev. Franklin exclaimed at one point. Indeed.        

“While Aretha’s body spoke quiescence and deference in the movie, her voice was unbound. It was grown, and free, and all hers.”

And then, another unbidden moment of intimacy, this time between Aretha and her father. Aretha began to play “Never Grow Old” at the piano, showcasing the skills that she “synthesized” through her time in the living room with James Cleveland. Suddenly, C.L. rises to wipe the sweat pouring off Aretha’s face. Rev. Franklin’s body blocks the camera, awakening us from the spell that Aretha was casting. But Aretha’s magic is irrepressible. She does not skip a beat and continues playing like he had not touched her. After all, she had been sweating for the better part of two nights; she could have mopped her brow if she wanted. She didn’t need her father’s help. And perhaps this is the story that the movie tells, hiding in plain sight all along. There is something “intangible” about Franklin’s singing that escapes description and confinement. While Aretha’s body spoke quiescence and deference in the movie, her voice was unbound. It was grown, and free, and all hers.