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Amazing Grace - Film Review

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by John Andrew (subscribe)
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Published August 31st 2019
The magic is strong

It had been four short years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, and less than ten since the death of JFK.

Aretha Franklin chose Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church rather than a studio to record the best selling gospel album of all time.

"In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade," wrote former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. "Our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect."

Her father channelled the pride and the pain of that struggle as he confesses that just a few years before such a celebration might not have been possible this is not just a homage to religious faith here is raw emotion and pride in a strong people who are surmounting subjugation but have yet to reach their promised land.

How amazing that this record of a pivotal time in history took forty years to emerge and very nearly didn't.

Technically it was a nightmare with un-synced sound, unsteady cameras and chaotic editing.

And yet, once the sound was sorted out, the very rawness of the result adds to the sense of spontaneity as Aretha, the choir and the backing instruments weave power and magic.

Franklin makes it look easy. Her voice meets any demand put on it in terms of range and emotion. Like her mentor, Mahalia Jackson, her technique seems effortless and understated. It is only at the end of a song, when she lets go and sinks into a chair that we can see the fierce energy that has been driving her performance. That added dimension which in her gospel music has a deeply spiritual component is also there in songs like "respect" and "natural women" which Aretha explained by saying that all music is a gift from the divine.

Martin Luther King in his spontaneous weaving of words was living tribute to how flawed people can be a conduit to the Divine and Aretha lifts us and the congregation in that Baptist Church. There is a message of liberation from oppression "Pharoh's army was drowned, Oh Mary don't you weep". And a celebration that even the oppressed are loved and have worth "Amazing grace".

Just a year after Aretha Franklin's death this record of her singing ensures, in the words of her brother "we're just gonna live on and on and on".
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