Red carpet interview with producer of ‘Amazing Grace’ documentary about Aretha Franklin
Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press
There were no Hollywood klieg lights, no long parade of celebrities, no crush of paparazzi.
But it was a movie premiere with meaning — and lots of hometown heart — Monday night as Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” at last made its Detroit debut, ahead of its nationwide release in April.
Hundreds packed the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Detroit Film Theatre for the occasion, most of them guests of the Franklin family, for a glimpse at the critically acclaimed, long-in-the-works gospel concert film. There was an extra resonance to the night: Monday would have been the singer’s 77th birthday.
“If they’ve never been to church, they’ll go to church,” said the late singer’s son Kecalf Franklin. “Watching the movie, it’s easy to forget it was made in Southern California. I felt like it was in Detroit. That’s how close to home it is.”
Ahead of the evening screening, a couple of hundred guests gathered for a soiree at the nearby Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where the lively mood sharply contrasted with the last notable Aretha Franklin gathering there — her public viewing in August.
“There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we drove down here today,” said Kecalf Franklin. “I thought that was beautiful.”
On hand at the DIA were the film’s producer, UCLA music professor Alan Elliott, along with Martha Reeves, Tommy Hearns and a host of folks who were friends of the Franklin family or part of her tight-knit world, including choreographers, hairstylists and others.
“Amazing Grace” had already shown at special screenings in New York, Los Angeles and several film festivals, but Monday’s event was described by co-producer Terrell Whittley as the true organic launch. Just a mile from the Detroit church site where young Franklin cut her gospel teeth, this was “back to ground zero,” he said.
“Alan and I talked about it from the beginning — if it’s going to start, it has to start here,” he said. As they plotted the film’s rollout, Whittley said, they asked themselves: “What would Aretha do?”
The film, shot in 1972 and assembled decades later by Elliott into a final cut, certainly worked its magic. Charmingly intimate and unadorned, it’s an engrossing time capsule that captures 29-year-old Franklin going back to her musical roots as she records “Amazing Grace,” the top-selling live gospel album in history. Demure and reverent, Franklin lets her singing do all the communicating as she performs in an L.A. church with the jovial Rev. James Cleveland and his choir.
There was a hometown camaraderie inside Monday’s theater, where shouts of “Come on, ’Ree ’Ree!” and — when Franklin appeared onscreen arriving in a grand fur coat — “Yes, girl!” punctuated the proceedings. There’s a moment late in the film when the singer’s father, the late Detroit Rev. C.L. Franklin, heads to the altar. A knowing murmur circulated inside the DFT when he stepped up, and when the loquacious preacher began to speak, one viewer chuckled as she said, “Oh, here he goes!”
You sensed there were moments when some viewers were ready to hop from their seats and be moved by the spirit as the gospel music did its business, but the formal nature of the black-tie premiere seemed to have pulled the reins. It will be interesting to visit an area cinema on April 19 — when “Amazing Grace” opens nationwide — to watch how everyday audiences react.
Indeed, co-producer Tirrell Whittley, speaking onstage ahead of the showing, urged the ministers in attendance to encourage group ticket purchases and even theater buyouts for area congregations.
Finally hitting theaters April 19, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” film was shot in 1972 in conjunction with her best-selling gospel album.
Detroit Free Press
The Rev. William Barber II, a North Carolina pastor who had been close to Franklin, delivered a powerful and penetrating 14-minute sermon ahead of the screening. Barber spoke of the intrinsic spiritual power of song, and linked Franklin to an African-American musical heritage where pain and yearning were embedded since the days of slavery.
“Her voice could help you hear God’s voice,” Barber said.
Even if the aisles weren’t full of praise dancing Monday, there was a sense of transport inside the DFT as viewers locked into Franklin’s stunning, transcendent performances onscreen. For 87 minutes, the theater became transformed, as Rev. Barber had earlier promised, into a “freedom church.”
The evening wrapped up with a Barber-led singalong of “Happy Birthday to You” for the late Queen of Soul.
There was one sour note to the occasion: a steady stream of ticket holders had arrived at the DIA only to discover they couldn’t be accommodated. An overbooking situation shut out about 500 people who had acquired free tickets via the DIA and the Freep Film Festival. It appeared the majority of those ticket holders had seen an email alert sent earlier Monday, but there were some who’d missed the message and stood disgruntled in the theater lobby.
“We’re honoring the wishes of the Franklin family,” volunteers explained to some of those disappointed guests.
All of those who opted to wait it out until showtime ultimately were seated because of spare room, said the DIA’s Christine Kloostra. A second screening has been added for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to accommodate the others, and free parking will be provided at the DIA’s John R lot.
The Detroit premiere was the first of several special events planned around the country ahead of the April 19 release, including Montgomery, Alabama (March 27), Atlanta (March 27), Las Vegas (March 28), Los Angeles (March 31), New York (April 2) and Nashville (April 9).
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.
Rev. William J. Barber II offers a resounding prayer before film ‘Amazing Grace’
Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press
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