Aretha Franklin's Surprise Court Ruling Roils Telluride Festival: "It's a Shame"

Courtesy of Amazing Grace Movie LLC
'Amazing Grace'

Festivalgoers responded with puzzlement and disappointment to the news that the Aretha Franklin doc won't be screening.

Blocked from screening Amazing Grace, a documentary about Aretha Franklin, by a federal court judge, the Telluride Film Festival has drafted Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa, a doc about the Sherpa guides who assist climbers on Mr. Everest, to play in the 7:30 p.m. screening slot at the Chuck Jones Theater that had been earmarked for Grace.

The festival did not offer any immediate comment on the unexpected development. The legendary singer filed papers late Thursday over the film that uses Sydney Pollack-shot footage of her 1972 concert performance at the New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She argued that the deal she had originally made with the producers required her consent and that Amazing Grace was a violation of likeness and name.

But festivalgoers were both puzzled and disappointed that Amazing Grace would not be screening.

“I’m kind of surprised that the whole thing didn’t come up earlier. Why didn’t the issue come up before?” asked DreamWorks Animation exec Bonnie Arnold of the dramatic eleventh-hour legal maneuver. “I’m surprised she didn’t know it was on the festival circuit or else didn’t do something earlier.”

Another exec, who asked not to be identified, cracked, “Oh, f—. Now I’ll have to find something else to watch.”

“It’s a shame,” said Duncan Burke, an investment adviser from Greenwich, Conn., who’s been attending the festival regularly for 14 years. “You’ve got a great audience now.”

Amazing Grace also is scheduled to play the upcoming Toronto Film Festival, where its first screening is set for Sept. 10. While its selection in Toronto was announced some weeks ago, its appearance in Telluride wasn’t officially confirmed until Thursday, when TFF announced its schedule on the eve of the festival. Since the judge in Denver, Colo., does not have jurisdiction over Canada, the film could still play the Toronto fest if Franklin's lawyers don't seek a similar ruling there.

Sherpa, which was suddenly thrust into the fest's opening-day spotlight, began as a documentary about the 2014 climbing season on Everest as told from the Sherpas’ point-of-view. When an avalanche hit that claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas, it became something more than that as Peedom’s camera captured the moments when the surviving Sherpas called off the climbing season.

Veterans on the festival circuit recalled a similar, though not completely analogous, situation at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, which had scheduled Kurt & Courtney, a documentary about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love from director Nick Bloomfield. The festival received threats of legal action from Love's lawyers, claiming Bloomfield failed to get permission to use several Nirvana songs on the movie's soundtrack, although Bloomfield contended at the time that Love was concerned about how she would be portrayed in the film. The threats did not result in an injunction like the one that Franklin obtained, but Sundance itself decided not to screen the film. Instead, Kurt & Courtney screened in Park City at a "secret screening," sponsored by the upstart Slamdunk Film Festival. And a month later, the movie was released theatrically.