Aretha Franklin is going on tour — or, rather, the concert movie she stars in is, as “Amazing Grace” is being booked for a solid week’s worth of premieres across the country at the end of March, Variety has learned. Alan Elliott, the documentary’s producer, and prominent civil rights activist Rev. William J. Barber II will be taking the film to back-to-back premiere events at locations including the Smithsonian in Washington, the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum in Atlanta, the Civil Rights Museum in Alabama and, not least of all, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where the late superstar’s father, C.L. Franklin, preached, and where she returned to sing up through her last years.
“Amazing Grace” will also have its official L.A. bow March 31 at a church, and not just any house of worship, but the New Missionary Temple Church, where the movie was filmed as Franklin’s live album of the same name was recorded in 1972. Projection equipment will be brought into the church for the L.A. premiere, presumably for the first time since the church building last operated as a neighborhood movie house, the Mayfair Theater, in the 1950s or ‘60s.
“Detroit is really the home and heart of Aretha,” says Elliott, “but Los Angeles is the home of ‘Amazing Grace.’ It would have been easy to do the Chinese Theater [where the film did have a preview screening in November as part of the AFI Festival] or the Cinematheque, but the excitement is over doing it at the original church, and having all the (surviving) choir members back there that day. It’s going to be half film people and celebrities and then half congregants from the church and members of the community, so it’s very much in keeping with both audiences we hope to have.”
The late March and early April premieres are being followed by exclusive runs in L.A. and New York April 5 and a 1000-screen break on April 19, with distribution for the long-troubled, now-settled film being handled by Neon. “Opening (wide) on Easter weekend is not an accident,” Elliott says. “I mean, Aretha lives Easter weekend, she really lives. This is not the ‘Freeway of Love’ Aretha. This is like, Aretha.”
Elliott expects the film to have a life on concert stages after its theatrical run. He’s working with the legendary British concert producer Harvey Goldsmith, one of the organizers of Live Aid, on setting up a late summer tour that they hope to bring to outdoor venues including the Hollywood Bowl, where a live gospel performance would be followed by a full-blast screening of the film after intermission.
Since the film’s original awards-qualifying one-week engagements in December, Spike Lee has come on board as a producer. (His 40 Acres and a Mule company and Elliott’s Al’s Records and Tapes are now officially its co-presenters.) Lee won’t be able to attend any of the upcoming premieres, because he’s deep into shooting “Da 5 Bloods,” but he called Varietyfrom that film’s Thailand location to express his exhilaration over “Amazing Grace.”
Says Lee, “I saw it in New York when it had the short (Oscar-qualifying) run at the Film Forum, and it was mesmerizing and transformative. It’s the cinema version of going to church — the black Baptist church. It’s elevating. It’s spiritual. This, I think, is one of the seminal moments in American recording history. We’re talking about Aretha Franklin, ReRe, the Queen, in all her glory. What you see, what you hear, what you feel is 100 percent the truth. There’s no shenanigans. No special effects. No AutoTune. It’s just blood, sweat and tears up there. Another word is raw. The camera assistant is in the shot,” he laughs. “There’s a sound blanket over the piano. It’s an unclean, unfiltered gem. And you don’t see that a lot today. Everything is so clean and spiffy and shined, it makes you blind. That ain’t this!”
Lee downplays his role as a late-coming producer on the project, which was assembled by Elliott from raw footage shot by Sydney Pollack for a planned Warner Bros. film and then abandoned for decades due to technical snafus. Elliott’s reconstruction then stood in legal limbo for years because of Franklin’s objections to contractual terms, but the wide embrace by the estate executor, the singer’s niece, Sabrina Owens, and the rest of the Franklin family has led to its release as a tribute to the singer at her peak.
“I understood that I was not there in that church way back in 1972,” Lee says. “Alan, to me, is the hero of this. He’s the one that’s persevered and fought tooth and nail and begged, borrowed and got it done.” The filmmaker says Elliott and Barber are “soldiers. They’re doing the work. I can’t take credit for that at all. And I don’t have the exact amount of years it’s taken to get this done, but it’s a monumental achievement. There was always the intrigue that people had heard and loved the album (one of Franklin’s most successful, having gone platinum in 1972) but there was the rumor: ‘Was this filmed?’ It was like folklore, and now you get to see it.”
Elliott is hopeful that not just Franklin but others involved in the original recording and filming, especially the choir, will be recognized. He says Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, is committing to an effort to get the New Missionary Temple Church, which is located on South Broadway near Manchester, a designation as a historic monument, and also working on getting the choir a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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