Sydney Pollack's 'Amazing Grace': The Tortured 4-Decade History of the Film Aretha Franklin Wants to Stop

Amazing Grace Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Amazing Grace Movie LLC

Amazing Grace Still - H 2015

In 1972, the director spent two days in a Watts church filming Franklin recording her historic gospel album. But he forgot to sync the sound. Now, after 43 years, the film is finally ready to be seen — if Franklin's lawsuit doesnt stop it.

If your record collection happens to contain an original vinyl copy of Aretha Franklin's landmark 1972 live album Amazing Grace — at double-platinum status, still her biggest seller, as well as the top-selling traditional gospel LP in history — take a look at the liner notes. There's a sentence in the credits promising an accompanying "Sidney [sic] Pollack" movie would soon be on the way.

Just 43 years behind schedule, the movie is ready to screen but Franklin, 73, sued Friday to try to stop it — and she seems to have succeeded so far.

Amazing Grace, an 87-minute documentary pulled together from footage the late Sydney Pollack shot of Franklin while she recorded her historic album in front of a congregation at a church in Watts, was scheduled to screen at both Friday's Telluride and next week's Toronto film festivals. The Telluride festival director said Friday that the screening will go on, but this afternoon, a U.S. district judge in Denver granted Franklin's emergency injunction motion to stop the film and the Telluride screening has now been canceled (instead, Jennifer Peedom's Sherpa, a documentary about climbing Mt. Everest, will be shown). It's the second time the singer has succeeded in keeping the film under wraps; she'd sued before in 2011, but circumstances have changed since then and it's unclear now if her legal argument will hold up when it eventually goes to court.

Squabbles like this one are only part of the reason the film has sat in a Warner Bros. vault for the better part of a half-century. The bigger reason was that, back in 1972, Pollack screwed up. The then-38-year-old hotshot coming off his first Oscar nomination (for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), neglected to bring along sound-syncing clapper boards to the church, and ended up accidentally shooting the world's first silent rock doc.

Nobody remembers who first came up with the idea of turning Franklin's Watts sessions into a movie, but the man in charge of making it happen was legendary rock producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Pink Floyd), who in late 1970 had been hired by Warner Bros. Pictures to head its newly expanded music department. A recent merger had brought the film studio and Warner Bros. Records (which owned Atlantic Records, the label recording Franklin's gospel LP) under one corporate umbrella, and the company was looking for ways to sell movie tickets along with albums. "This was the dawn of synergy," Boyd, now 73, recalls in an interview.

It was also the golden age of rockumentaries. In 1970 alone, there'd been Woodstock, Gimme Shelter and Elvis: That's the Way It Is. Boyd had already started to assemble a team of established documentary cameramen for the Franklin film, but the then-head of Warner Bros. Pictures, Ted Ashley, had other ideas. "I got a call from Ted saying, 'Great news!' " recalls Boyd. "He'd had dinner the night before with Sydney Pollack, and Sydney was now going to film Aretha's movie. I said, 'Ted, has he ever shot live music before? It's kind of a specialized skill.' And he said, 'What are you talking about, Joe? It's Sydney Pollack!"

Pollack arrived at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Jan. 13, 1972, with a crew of film and sound engineers and five 16mm cameras. He began shooting as Franklin, with a choir behind her, belted out gospel tunes ranging from "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" to Marvin Gaye's "Wholly Holy." You can occasionally spot the young director, wearing '70s-style corduroy and Brillo pad-like sideburns, hand-gesturing to his crew as he zips around the parishioners assembled for the recording. Look carefully and you'll see, rocking out in the back of the church, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts (who, perhaps not coincidentally, were about to record Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones' most overtly gospel-influenced album). "I'd seen Aretha many times in concert," Jagger tells The Hollywood Reporter, "but this was the first time I'd seen her in a church. It was an exciting and unique occasion."

Pollack spent two days shooting Franklin in Watts. But as he discovered afterward, without clapper boards snapping shut at the beginning of each take to help synchronize sound and picture, the 20 hours of footage he had accumulated was all but worthless. "It was frustrating as hell," recalls William Steinkamp, Pollack's longtime editor. "[The footage] was like a jigsaw puzzle. We had a team on it, and you'd work on it for a while and give up.'" The choir director from the Watts recordings was brought in to try to lip-read the reels, but after months of work, only about 150 minutes of footage had been matched with sound, none of it adding up to a complete, useable song. Deadlines passed as the Amazing Grace album came out in June 1972, selling millions with no synergy. In August, Warner Bros. officially wrote off and shelved the movie.

Pollack moved on to his next film, working with another diva, Barbra Streisand, on The Way We Were. And his Aretha film sat in cans gathering dust for decades, although he never gave up on the idea of someday reviving the movie. "Every seven or eight years or so," recalls Steinkamp, "I'd go, 'Hey, what happened to that Aretha Franklin stuff?' He'd go, 'Aw, goddam it, it's still there!' He'd sit in his office and look at these VHS tapes that didn't have any sound and kind of dream about it. It was something he always wanted to try to finish, but he'd get busy" — with films like Tootsie and The Firm — "and it'd get back-burnered again."

Enter producer Alan Elliott, who had been intrigued by the legend of the lost Aretha doc ever since he was an A&R staffer at Atlantic in the early 1990s. So intrigued that he broached the subject with his Atlantic boss, Jerry Wexler, who had co-produced the Amazing Grace album. Wexler and other mutual friends — songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman — helped arrange a meeting between Elliott and Pollack in 2007. For a year the two men exchanged calls about how to bring the Franklin feature back to life. Then Pollack's health took a turn for the worse. "I knew Sydney had terminal cancer," recalls Elliott. "So I called him and started to say, 'Look, I'm really sorry about you being sick.' He said, 'I'm not sick — I'm f—ing dying.' He had a way of getting right to the truth of the matter. He said, '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.'"

Elliot took his dying friend's words seriously; he was determined to finish Pollack's film. He even mortgaged his own home to purchase the negative from Warner Bros. (WME's Ari Emanuel, Elliott's one-time partner in an early, failed Internet venture, put in a good word for him with the studio). And finally, two years after Pollack's death in 2008, working with the digital detectives at the Deluxe film lab, who used computers to sift through the footage and audio recordings, Elliott succeeded in syncing the movie. There was an early screening in 2010, and a trailer was even cut, as Elliott planned for a 2011 release of Amazing Grace. Then, yet another snag: Franklin filed a lawsuit against Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission.

Franklin won't say what upsets her about the movie's release — she declined to comment for this story, although she recently told The Detroit Free Press that she'd seen and "loves" the movie. But back then she had Elliot over a barrel. He'd been able to find the original 1972 release contracts for everyone except, puzzlingly, its star. He'd been forced to settle the suit, agreeing not to show the movie without Franklin's permission. But then last year Franklin's contract suddenly turned up at Warner Bros. The reason Elliott hadn't been able to locate it was because her paperwork had been signed in 1969, not 1972 — and what she signed was a personal service contract for both the movie studio and record label that effectively gave them full rights to the material filmed in the Watts church (and now, Elliott believes, he's got the rights, as the film's new owner).

Two weeks ago, Franklin's then-lawyer, Arnold Reed, was making noises about filing a new suit to prevent the film from screening at Telluride and Toronto. "Once we make a decision [to litigate], Alan Elliott won't be able to show that film in his garage," the attorney told THR, arguing that releasing the film without her approval and compensation constitutes "an act of thievery." As of yesterday, though, Franklin appears to have a new firm representing her, Dykema Gossett in Detroit. And now Franklin has sought an emergency injunction in Colorado to stop the Telluride and Toronto screenings.

"I understand she's used to getting paid a lot of money to do promotion for a project like this," says Elliott, who continues to have faith that eventually Franklin will see the light. "But I hope at some point she will come around. I always want to do right by Aretha."