Aretha Franklin Sues To Suppress Lost ‘Amazing Grace’ Documentary (VIDEO)
The Telluride Film Festival is going on this weekend without its most talked-about film. Superstar singer Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, went to court to stop the screening of “Amazing Grace”, a documentary about her that was begun in 1972 by director Sydney Pollack.
On Friday, Franklin won a temporary restraining order that is in effect for 14 days — until well after the end of the festival. This turn of events is a huge disappointment for Franklin’s fans, for the festival’s organizers, and for the man who eventually finished the documentary, Alan Elliott.
“Amazing Grace” is about the making of the performer’s album of the same name — the bestselling live gospel album of all time, as well as the singer’s personal top seller to date. It was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
unique footage has been in storage for over 40 years
Pollack had 20 hours of film footage, but failed to bring along the equipment that would allow him to synchronize the sound, ending up with a silent movie. Efforts to add the sound afterward were unsuccessful and the footage sat in storage at Warner Brothers for decades.
It’s been an incredible loss for the music world because the performance at the Baptist church took the popular Franklin back to her roots. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was the pastor of the huge New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and a famous gospel singer himself. Aretha sang in his church for years and, as a teenager, went on tour with him on the gospel circuit.
Mick Jagger was one of the many stars in the 1972 audience at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. He captured the special nature of the occasion in a description to The Hollywood Reporter:
“I’d seen Aretha many times in concert, but this was the first time I’d seen her in a church. It was an exciting and unique occasion.”
For both nights that the recording was being made, Aretha was backed up by a gospel choir, directed by Pastor Alexander Hamilton. From that intimate vantage point, Hamilton captured the true power of what happened, and of what might be captured on the film. He said:
“You look at Aretha, and while you see the artistry and the command of the voice, you also see in her the humility. She was not the Aretha in lights that you see on the stage. She was just Aretha, our sister, singing for the Lord. We had just come through the ’60s, we were just making the transition from colored to negroes to black. Black is beautiful had just come out in the mid-60s.”
The ‘lost’ documentary became the stuff of legends. In 2007, producer Alan Elliott began an ongoing conversation with Pollack about whether it could be revived. A year later, Pollack was ill with terminal cancer. When Elliott expressed concern to his friend about his illness, Pollack said:
“I’m not sick — I’m f—ing dying… You know this [material] better than I do. So I’m going to go to Warner Bros. and make sure you get to finish this movie.”
Pollack died in 2008, but his request was the beginning of Elliott’s mission to finish the film. Digital technology enabled him to finally sync the audio with the visual.
aretha franklin’s contract couldn’t be found
In 2010, it was ready to go, but Aretha sued to stop it. The producer had located the release contracts for everyone associated with the documentary except for the star, so he had no choice but to scrap his plans and send the footage back into obscurity.
Suddenly last year, Franklin’s contract with Warner Brothers showed up. It had eluded discovery because it was signed in 1969 rather than 1972.
Elliott thought the project was good to go at last. Screenings were scheduled for September’s Telluride Film Festival and the documentary was billed as Sydney Pollack’s final film.
At the last minute, Aretha filed another lawsuit. She testified by phone, from her home in Detroit, in the Colorado District Court case, claiming that she never agreed to the footage being used for this purpose. In issuing the injunction, Judge John Kane expressed the opinion that Franklin could well win the suit, eventually. He wrote:
“Ms. Franklin has a federal statutory right to protect her concert footage from being broadcast or distributed without her permission. A film that essentially recreates the entire concert experience is not fair use of this footage.”
Aretha has apparently seen the film, but declined to fully explain why she doesn’t want the public to see it. Two days before the injunction, she told the Detroit Freepress:
“It isn’t that I’m not happy about the film, because I love the film itself. It’s just that — well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.”
On Saturday, the singer framed the outcome as being about “respect” and “one’s right to own their own self-image.”
Alan Elliott seems to think he has shown Franklin respect, having tried to involve her in the project. But he believes that the contract she signed with Warner Bros. does not give her usage rights over the footage. Cecil Morris, an attorney for the film festival, said:
“There’s a real, substantial likelihood that Ms. Franklin does not own the rights to the images in that picture.”
The issues still have to be settled in court but, in the meantime, the injunction specifies only that the documentary can’t be shown at the Telluride Film Festival. Next week’s Toronto International Film Festival also has “Amazing Grace” on its roster.
toronto plans to proceed with its screening
After the injunction was issued, Thom Powers, an official with the Toronto International Film festival, said:
“We’re proceeding with plans to screen ‘Amazing Grace’ at TIFF. We haven’t heard of any legal procedures regarding the film in Toronto.”
They are likely to hear something by Thursday, when the initial screening is scheduled. The publicity and the delays have only whetted the public’s hunger to see the documentary, but they may be disappointed yet again.
The legal dispute aside, a repeat of the loss would be tragic. From the streets of Detroit to the halls of the White House, generations of fans have been enraptured by Aretha Franklin’s powerful, passionate voice. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is ninth on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, and sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Aretha, what more can we do to show we love you? Please — let us have “Amazing Grace”.
View the trailer for “Amazing Grace” here:
Feature photo, screenshot from YouTube video.
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