Image Credit: StudioCanal
"That intangible thing that is hard to describe".This is the closest verbal characterisation of Aretha's talent as confessed by her father, Clarence L. Franklin within this uplifting documentary. The film's entirety is situated within the New Temple Missionary Baptist
Church, in Los Angeles: a location specifically chosen by the then 29-year-old singer, Aretha Franklin to record her gospel album due to its sentimental and reminiscent value.The overdue release didn't manage it's intended time of distribution due to failures to synchronise sound and visual footage. It is only under Adam Elliot’s supervision and modern renovations to digital technology that have granted the film’s resurrection. Commissioned by Warner Bros., Oscar-winner Sydney Pollock shot the film during the height of Franklin’s career in 1972 over a two-day period and in front of a live[ley] congregation, hosted by Reverend Dr James Edward Cleveland and accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir.
Although the album went onto sell the two-million copies, the genre is entirely gospel, ossifying witnesses into the distinct sounds African-American worship. It is for this reason that the music may not appeal to a secular audience. However, the euphoric atmosphere is so enveloping that one does not even have to be spiritual (let alone religious) to be compelled by the footage. Notable moments depict the audience’s overwhelmed reactions to Franklin's’ enthralling tone. At one point, Cleveland in overcome with emotion and resigns to remote reflection upon a pew whilst Franklin sings on. Franklin's’ attitudinal and testifying vocals resonate with the historical period. Only four years after the success and permanent historical imprint of the American Civil Rights struggle the expressive forms of protest remain detectable within the film. Although this is referred to only once by Cleveland, the aesthetics and attire of the congregation suggest there is no need for verbal acknowledgement. Afrocentrism can be witnessed by the abundance of unaltered hair; the African garments that Franklin wears; and the disregard towards the camera’s filming intimate moments of spiritual surrender.
In addition to the repertoire, Franklin’s demeanour also appears unfamiliar. When she’s not singing the star is reserved, intermittently speaking to correct musical discrepancies via proposals to re-record tracks and makes no effort to engage or show-boat in-between them. Her humble yet mawkish restraint adds to the film’s sacrosanct atmosphere. With her eyes constantly closed in concentration, Franklin appears nonplussed her excessive perspiration as she focuses all her energies on feeling the melody.
The marketing of the film requires some critique. The term ‘documentary’ does not match the structure of the film which only resonates with the term due to the unpolished editing. Shot through 16mm cameras, the footage shows all the tools
and effort that go into making a sensational recording. At the beginning Cleveland discloses to the audience members that they are being recorded and that whimsicality is encouraged when camera goes by because “it may not come by again”. Repeatedly we witness crew members looking directly into the camera and signalling places within the set for potentially better shots. What denies the films’ complete allocation to the documentary genre is the lack of voice-over dialogue. There are zero personal accounts of the late singer’s relationships with her peers, entourage, colleagues or even family. Testimonies to Aretha’s temperament only refer to her talent. Personal insight can only come from individual accounts of personal interactions with Franklin, the lack of which
transposes the style of the film from a documentary into a live performance.
Needless to say, this is an epochal insight into the foundations of Franklin's unique and influential style and by the end of the film one feels emotionally spent yet uplifted.However, one may need to look elsewhere for a detailed account of the late star’s life.