Madhuri reviewed the film starring Aretha Franklin after she saw it in the cinema, and shares what happened on her way home.
with Aretha Franklin
and the Southern California Baptist Choir
with Alexander Hamilton, James Cleveland, and Clara Ward
Directors: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliot
Live recording of the most successful Gospel album in history: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace
released 10 May 2019
I sat yesterday evening in a pretty little theatre with red plush seats, in a little town in W. Yorkshire, England; being bathed, steeped, drenched… in Soul, in bliss!
On the screen, for an hour and a half, Aretha Franklin sang; but although she had eleven number-one singles and five Grammys under her belt already, she did not appear as a pop queen, a diva – she was singing Gospel, in praise of her particular Lord. Therefore she was a little bit serious; and yes, we could have loved some grins and sparkles. But oh lord, did she sing! That boundless voice, with touches of shimmering tinfoil in it, crawling up your spine, shivering your molars – but most of all, bathing your soul in a pouring potion of heart-space wine.
The venue was the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles; the year 1972. Aretha had arranged to do these concerts as a way to return to her Gospel roots; it was all faithfully filmed, without hype or special effects – just the raw hours, as they were. However, due to technical glitches, the footage sat in a vault at Warner Bros. for 35 years; then took another 11 to wend its way through red tape and lawyers, before it could be released, in 2019.
She was accompanied by the Southern California Baptist Choir; she was introduced by the famous Gospel master and her affable, masterly long-time mentor and collaborator, James Cleveland. The movie is edited down from two evening concerts and the intervening days of preparation. You see the camera guys darting here and there, all long hair and mustaches, and their white faces and quick, sure yet humble movements catch the eye and add to the festivity.
The choir director, Alexander Hamilton, made a wonderful counterpoint to Aretha’s lush, ivory-robed composure – he was a tall young wand of a man, with a high backside in his sober black suit, and he kept time and conducted with his whole body and his whole face – with clear intelligence; so that it was just a joy to watch him.
The camera moved about the church with restless hunger, feasting on the faces, the occasional dancing bodies. I was absolutely rapt – I grew up not so far from that place, and I was fascinated to see those human, vulnerable faces, topped most often by wonderful Afro topiary; people who no doubt had hard lives, and all of it showed, and it was a feast, of beauty, of empathy, of earthiness – even as praises were sung to the skies. …And who was that, that white face there at the back, serious, full-lipped? The camera moved on, but returned later – yep, Mick Jagger. No big deal.
There was a mural of Jesus in the church, up behind the singer – the camera visited him just briefly, and then moved on, as if embarrassed – he looked like a sad white body-builder hippie with long brown hair, standing in a swimming pool. His eyes were huge and tragic.
Aretha’s father, the Rev. Franklin, made a last-minute appearance, and a very neat little speech in praise of his daughter; and once he rose while she was singing and mopped away the sweat on her face with a cloth.
But what we came away with was the power of love – we were soaked in the stuff, the heart blasting open to the firmament. And, a kind of tender nostalgia for 1972 – the rich textures of how we dressed then – skinny limbs, flared pants, big hair – and our childlike hopings; and our inheritance of grim and grimy fears.
But one of the great gifts of music – or any art – is that being exposed to it is empowering. And though I couldn’t help comparing Aretha’s church with our rapturous gatherings in the Buddhafield – and wishing she could have pulled out the stops just that little bit more, so that she’d lose her hold on things and go sailing into the skies and come back all beaming and goofy – still, I was tremendously buoyed up by the film; wrapped in a simple happiness, and so very nourished by the deep chocolate resonance of all that Soul – there’s no better word for it.
I went home on the bus, and felt to take a little walk while it was still so light, in the long Northern evening. I live in a tranquil housing estate on a hillside; above and all around are fields, moors, woods – fabulously beautiful in springtime – full of wildflowers. I am still exploring this new home, and last night I ended up on the moors, striking out on a rough path through high grass, with all the lovely rolling hills and valleys laid out below; and the light changing in sublime pastels over serene passing clouds. I could see on and on, over the green patchwork distances; and all of it beautiful.
And, the rough track led me to a surprise – a park, right at the top of things, with a stupendous view in all directions, and huge wooden planters stuffed with bright petunias, and a great green playing-field, and picnic tables.
And I swung on the swings for a bit; and then, as I walked back towards the path that would take me down the hill again, a wave of joy and gratefulness came through me – I stopped – the rising fulness came in waves – and I felt, I am so lucky – so lucky -!! to live here; and I gasped with joyful tears.
There is at such moments a choice: tamp it down; or – let it rip! The world says, Stop! Suppress! Push it down! You don’t want people to attack you!
But there was nobody here; just the yummy colours of the evening, changing, changing – so I let my arms fly out to the sides, my head tilt back, and gasps and sobs came out of me – as I breathed my joy to the soft long twilit cloud-cabooses and the blue nothing between them, going gently roseate; and the emerald and chartreuse hills – making the choice: Let ‘er rip! – And feeling that, yes, Aretha was underpinning all this, supporting; raising her voice and giving her power so that all of us can, in our own way, sing. In this case, just an opening of arms and some joyful noise; but saying Yes to it changes something forever – something in you knows that the door is open; and it may go through.
And then my insides… melted. Like butter, like sun turning to pink on the clouds; melted down into the lower body. Oh, yum.
Thank you, Aretha; and I wish for all of us – for me, for you who read this – that we would have the courage of our joy; wherever we are. Don’t stop it. Let it happen. It is such a pity that these things are not allowed. I am so lucky I was on a lonely hilltop.
I wish the world its joy, wherever it is; and I wish for it to stop suppressing its upward air-draughts. Joy is a natural need, like hugging, or like resting – the imperative to dance, to gasp, to weep – to open up our arms. Once you’ve said Yes in such a moment, you will never be just the same again.
Aretha Franklin (25 March 1942 – 16 August 2018) was a gifted singer and pianist. She toured with her father’s traveling revival show and later visited New York, where she signed with Columbia Records. Aretha went on to release several popular singles, many of which are now considered classics. In 1987 she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2008 she won her 18th Grammy Award, making her one of the most honored artists in Grammy history.