Aretha Franklin Doc 'Amazing Grace' Premieres at South L.A. Church

Alan Elliott Sabrina Owens Tirrell Whittley Amazing Grace Premiere - Getty - H 2019
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The premiere took place at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, where the film's namesake album was originally recorded live 47 years ago.

A full house congregated on Sunday at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the Los Angeles premiere of Amazing Grace, a concert documentary chronicling the live, two-day recording of Aretha Franklin's best-selling gospel album of the same name. In the exact spot where the film and album were originally recorded 47 years ago, viewers clapped and cheered in the blue-upholstered pews as the late Franklin sang onscreen, echoing those who sat in her presence in 1972. 

“Aretha Franklin was Aretha Franklin. She was singular. There’s a band, there’s a great choir, and then there’s this shining light that obliterates everything else, and it’s a very powerful, powerful experience watching her be Aretha Franklin,” Amazing Grace producer Alan Elliott told The Hollywood Reporter.

Her voice was at “perfect pitch the entire time,” free of “overdubs, Auto-Tune — this is Aretha direct,” the doc's co-producer Tirrell Whittley told THR. Accompanied by the King of Gospel, Rev. James Cleveland, his Southern California Community Choir and choir director Rev. Alexander Hamilton (who also attended the film’s premiere), Franklin, wearing a green paisley cape gown, moves back and forth between the church's lectern and a Steinway piano in the film, her face dripping with sweat as she riffs on gospel classics such as “Amazing Grace” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Jesus.” The original Southern California Community Choir that sang with Franklin on her Amazing Grace record paid tribute to her at Sunday's event by singing those same hymns.

“For Aretha, gospel was her roots. She started in the church. She never left the church, so making a decision to record a gospel album was not surprising at all, and gospel is just as moving today as it is at any time, and it will always have a place in this world,” Sabrina V. Owens, Franklin’s niece and co-producer of the film, told THR. 

On Sunday, there was a power in sitting in that church, honoring the Queen of Soul, less than a year after her death, in such a historic venue — one not far from where fellow soul icon Sam Cooke was killed in 1964 — on the eve of the 35th anniversary of Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s death, and on the day where “this neighborhood’s most recent Grammy nominee, Nipsey Hussle, 33, was shot and killed,” Los Angeles City Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson noted during in the reception’s opening remarks. 

“While a lot of things have changed — we have this great internet and social media items — society hasn’t moved as far from where we were 47 years ago in how we treat people, how we talk to each other, the level of hope, the level of relationship and the level of love,” Whittley told THR. “Aretha’s music — specifically this album, Amazing Grace — it speaks to love, it speaks to spirit, it speaks to hope, inspiration. We need that now more than ever.” 

Harris-Dawson announced that a motion was submitted to the Los Angeles City Council to turn a lot on 87th Street and Broadway into “Aretha Franklin Square.” The motion would honor “this neighborhood as a beacon of culture of former African slaves who made their way across the country to build this metropolis we call Los Angeles,” he said.

In addition, a plan has been set to designate New Temple Missionary Baptist Church as a historic landmark, said Harris-Dawson, and to secure a star for the Southern California Community Choir on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, according to Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“I think this basically authenticates the power of gospel music and where it in many ways originated right here on this very location in the year of 1972, where that phenomenal recording took place: Humble beginnings electrified gospel music and, by extension, the whole world,” Ridley-Thomas told THR about the film. “Millions and millions and millions of people listen to Amazing Grace. Even until now.” 

When asked about a favorite memory with her aunt, Owens recalled a trip to the Hamptons she took with her husband and Franklin.

“We woke up one morning to her singing. She would run her notes every morning, and she sang for about an hour, hour and a half. It was like getting a private concert,” Owens said. “She was all the way down on the lower level [of the house], and her voice was just floating up through the rafters. I'll always remember that.”

Amazing Grace, which recently won the NAACP Image Award for best documentary film, was remastered and released on March 22 by Neon.