Calleri column

A young Aretha Franklin records the bestselling gospel album of all time in the documentary, “Amazing Grace.”

In the music world, it’s generally agreed that singer Aretha Franklin, after a series of early recording successes beginning in 1961, confirmed her vitality and importance with the release in April 1967 of her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” She never looked back.

Warner Brothers Studio hoping to capture Franklin in concert on film, found the opportunity with a television special that would also show her recording an album. That album, titled “Amazing Grace,” is the bestselling gospel music LP of all time.

The recording in January 1972 of two sessions of Franklin singing at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the “king of gospel music” Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir was overseen by director Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie,” “Three Days Of A Condor,” “The Way We Were,” et. al.).

Franklin would turn 30 two months later. Rev. Cleveland advised those in attendance that it was still a church service.

Members of the cheering congregation, studio executives, and invited guests, including Aretha’s own father, Reverend C. L. Franklin; singer Clara Ward, and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, witnessed the sessions.

Unfortunately, Pollack, who had never directed a documentary before, failed to use clapperboards to delineate the filmed reels, which meant that the 16mm footage never synched up with the audio tracks that were recorded on tape. This created major problems.

It’s taken more than four decades for a movie made from the recording sessions to be seen. On his deathbed in 2008, Pollack gave all of the material to producer-director Alan Elliott along with his permission to complete the project. The invention of new digital technology has solved myriad technical problems. However, it still took additional years for the movie’s release because of lawsuits from Aretha Franklin. After her death in 2018, her family approved the documentary.

It’s called “Amazing Grace,” and it’s an extraordinary testament to the power of Ms. Franklin’s voice.

Unlike most documentaries, there is almost no set-up and no interviews. You’re watching a recording session of an album, albeit, one recorded in front of rapturous fans, devoted churchgoers, and a brilliant choir that, astonishing to me, almost always sings seated. They had rehearsed for two weeks, and the only thing they needed was the arrival of Aretha and her talent.

Fourteen songs are heard, including “Wholy Holy,” “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” “Never Grow Old,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and a version of “Amazing Grace” that is so breathtaking, so thrilling in Aretha’s use of the power of her tonal range and the art of silence, that it sent a chill up my spine.

“Amazing Grace” is perfect and not to be missed. 1972 has rarely sounded this good.

TEEN SPIRIT: I saw and enjoyed the well-acted “Teen Spirit” last September at the Toronto International Film Festival and had wondered what happened to it. Fortunately, this delightful Cinderella story about a shy teenager who enters a singing competition is now in theaters.

Violet (a wonderful Elle Fanning) dreams of escaping her dreary life on a farm on the Isle Of Wight off the English coastline. She’s passionate about singing. With the help of a grizzled, middle-aged, gentlemanly former opera singer, she enters a local singing contest that holds the promise of her becoming a nationwide contender.

First-time screenwriter-director Max Minghella (the 33-year old son of the late director Anthony Minghella of “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and other works) understands very clearly that his superbly well-made movie needs to get Violet to the championship for an emotional payoff. Minghella’s handling of the set-up scenes is flawless.

Fanning herself performs her character’s songs terrifically, including music by Annie Lennox, Orbital, Robyn, Tegan & Sara, Sigrid, Ellie Goulding, and Carly Rae Jepsen & Jack Antonoff.

The high-spirited “Teen Spirit” is sincere, believable, and fun to experience.

PETERLOO: The title of this film is a play on the name of St. Peter’s Field near Manchester, England and the Battle of Waterloo. On August 16, 1819, almost 60,000 demonstrators from Manchester and surrounding villages gathered together to petition the government by peacefully demanding Parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights.

The government, egged on by tsk-taking Lords and Ladies, attempted to arrest some of the protest leaders, which caused panic and chaos. Armed government cavalrymen charged into the crowd. The number of casualties has been disputed, but at least as many as 15 people were killed and up to 700 wounded. British leaders then began a crackdown on reform.

“Peterloo” is written and directed by Britain’s Mike Leigh, who is most noted for making some exceptional personal dramas and comedies, including “Life Is Sweet,” “Topsy-Turvy,” and “Mr. Turner.” His latest is too long at 154-minutes for its purpose. Dialogue scenes are dull and stilted with everybody talking in ponderously stentorian tones, as if announcing an up-coming apocalypse.

The massacre that is the primary thrust of the feature is poorly staged and looks rather puny. There’s no epic scale, no sense of power, too many medium-close-ups. If you don’t know how to make 600 extras look like 60,000 protesters, then perhaps you’re making the wrong movie.

Studying crowd and battle scenes in films directed by D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Orson Welles might have helped Leigh a lot.


Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at