Aretha Franklin is going on tour — or, rather, the concert movie she stars in is, as “Amazing Grace” is being booked for a solid week’s worth of premieres across the country at the end of March, Variety has learned. Alan Elliott, the documentary’s producer, and prominent civil rights activist Rev. William J. Barber II will be taking the film to back-to-back premiere events at locations including the Smithsonian in Washington, the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum in Atlanta, the Civil Rights Museum in Alabama and, not least of all, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where the late superstar’s father, C.L. Franklin, preached, and where she returned to sing up through her last years.
“Amazing Grace” will also have its official L.A. bow March 31 at a church, and not just any house of worship, but the New Missionary Temple Church, where the movie was filmed as Franklin’s live album of the same name was recorded in 1972. Projection equipment will be brought into the church for the L.A. premiere, presumably for the first time since the church building last operated as a neighborhood movie house, the Mayfair Theater, in the 1950s or ‘60s.
“Detroit is really the home and heart of Aretha,” says Elliott, “but Los Angeles is the home of ‘Amazing Grace.’ It would have been easy to do the Chinese Theater [where the film did have a preview screening in November as part of the AFI Festival] or the Cinematheque, but the excitement is over doing it at the original church, and having all the (surviving) choir members back there that day. It’s going to be half film people and celebrities and then half congregants from the church and members of the community, so it’s very much in keeping with both audiences we hope to have.”
The late March and early April premieres are being followed by exclusive runs in L.A. and New York April 5 and a 1000-screen break on April 19, with distribution for the long-troubled, now-settled film being handled by Neon. “Opening (wide) on Easter weekend is not an accident,” Elliott says. “I mean, Aretha lives Easter weekend, she really lives. This is not the ‘Freeway of Love’ Aretha. This is like, Aretha.”
Elliott expects the film to have a life on concert stages after its theatrical run. He’s working with the legendary British concert producer Harvey Goldsmith, one of the organizers of Live Aid, on setting up a late summer tour that they hope to bring to outdoor venues including the Hollywood Bowl, where a live gospel performance would be followed by a full-blast screening of the film after intermission.
Since the film’s original awards-qualifying one-week engagements in December, Spike Lee has come on board as a producer. (His 40 Acres and a Mule company and Elliott’s Al’s Records and Tapes are now officially its co-presenters.) Lee won’t be able to attend any of the upcoming premieres, because he’s deep into shooting “Da 5 Bloods,” but he called Varietyfrom that film’s Thailand location to express his exhilaration over “Amazing Grace.”
Says Lee, “I saw it in New York when it had the short (Oscar-qualifying) run at the Film Forum, and it was mesmerizing and transformative. It’s the cinema version of going to church — the black Baptist church. It’s elevating. It’s spiritual. This, I think, is one of the seminal moments in American recording history. We’re talking about Aretha Franklin, ReRe, the Queen, in all her glory. What you see, what you hear, what you feel is 100 percent the truth. There’s no shenanigans. No special effects. No AutoTune. It’s just blood, sweat and tears up there. Another word is raw. The camera assistant is in the shot,” he laughs. “There’s a sound blanket over the piano. It’s an unclean, unfiltered gem. And you don’t see that a lot today. Everything is so clean and spiffy and shined, it makes you blind. That ain’t this!”
Lee downplays his role as a late-coming producer on the project, which was assembled by Elliott from raw footage shot by Sydney Pollack for a planned Warner Bros. film and then abandoned for decades due to technical snafus. Elliott’s reconstruction then stood in legal limbo for years because of Franklin’s objections to contractual terms, but the wide embrace by the estate executor, the singer’s niece, Sabrina Owens, and the rest of the Franklin family has led to its release as a tribute to the singer at her peak.
“I understood that I was not there in that church way back in 1972,” Lee says. “Alan, to me, is the hero of this. He’s the one that’s persevered and fought tooth and nail and begged, borrowed and got it done.” The filmmaker says Elliott and Barber are “soldiers. They’re doing the work. I can’t take credit for that at all. And I don’t have the exact amount of years it’s taken to get this done, but it’s a monumental achievement. There was always the intrigue that people had heard and loved the album (one of Franklin’s most successful, having gone platinum in 1972) but there was the rumor: ‘Was this filmed?’ It was like folklore, and now you get to see it.”
Elliott is hopeful that not just Franklin but others involved in the original recording and filming, especially the choir, will be recognized. He says Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, is committing to an effort to get the New Missionary Temple Church, which is located on South Broadway near Manchester, a designation as a historic monument, and also working on getting the choir a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
During the week of regional premieres at the end of the month, Elliott and Barber will take a detour to two awards shows, gospel music’s Stellar Awards and the NAACP’s Image Awards, taking place on March 29 and 30, respectively. At the Image Awards in L.A., the original 1972 choir director, Alexander Hamilton, will lead a choir performance. The plan for the Stellar Awards in Las Vegas the night before that are still taking shape, but the hope is to involve modern gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams, the latter of whom was just seen on the CBS telecast “Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul.”
“Raising awareness for Rev. Barber’s agenda is a priority ancillary for the film’s rollout,” says Elliott, smiling as he uses the word “ancillary” in a more woke context than it usually sits. “The tour will be around the social issues that were close to Aretha, particularly Rev. Barber, who spoke at her (funeral) service and who preaches moral revivalism through the Poor People’s Campaign,” a program that itself revives the name of a program initiated by Martin Luther King Jr.
Franklin’s association with King is well remembered: He presented her with an award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference just before his assassination, and two months later, she sang “Precious Lord” (a hymn she would revive in “Amazing Grace”) at a memorial service for King. She sang it again in his honor in 2011 as King’s Washington memorial was dedicated.
Barber, a frequent guest on CNN and MSNBC to discuss social justice issues, was invited by Franklin to come lead one of his “moral revival” services at her father’s church in 2016, after she saw him speak at the Democratic convention. They became friends, exchanging calls and texts and praying together until her final days in 2018. He spoke again at what he calls her “homegoing.”
“She had a certain sacredness in her singing, whether it was at a civil rights gathering or at a club,” says Barber. “Her music not only made you want to dance, but it made you want to do something. It made you want to be engaged in transformation.” Before knowing that Elliott was already a huge fan of his work, Barber went to see “Amazing Grace” at the Film Forum, and “to see Aretha in this movie in her most powerful arena, the church, was something to behold. So what we hope to do with ‘Amazing Grace’ now is not merely to celebrate Aretha — I don’t think she would want us just to celebrate her — but let them bring young and older people and black and white people into this space to hear this singer that sings not only out of her soul but out of the soul of the people, and to be inspired by it so that we continue to stand up and, as she would say, demand respect. It’s not just the song ‘Respect’ — in everything she sang, there’s a sense that respect is non-negotiable. And treating people right is non-negotiable and justice is non-negotiable.”
Spike Lee also discusses the film in these terms. “It demonstrates the power of the black church. And it’s fitting that it comes out this year,” says the filmmaker. “I talked about it a little in my Oscar speech, but this is a very important year: 1619, 2019 (as the anniversary of the beginnings of slavery). Four hundred years. And it’s well-documented that the church has been pivotal in keeping us together. You know, ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’ (performed by Franklin in the film) is a Negro spiritual. It’s the music that’s in the prayer that kept us going, in the most difficult times we’ve ever faced. That belief in God, and the spirits, and the ancestors … she’s singing about that! She was there sweating about it,” he says with a laugh, referring to the extremely high perspiration quotient in the film. “All that stuff I’m talking about is in that sweat that’s coming out of her body.”
Lee has his own personal recollections of Franklin that feed into his enthusiasm for being a producer on “Amazing Grace.” “I am so blessed — as a young, snotty-nosed kid growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I had heroes, I had heroines: Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Ali, Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier. I know I mixed up music and sports, but those are my two passions. And then to get to meet these people? Aretha sang a cover of a great Donny Hathaway song, ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free,’ for the end credits of ‘Malcolm X.’ And every time I would see Aretha, she would give me a hug that reminded me of my grandma. When Aretha hugged you, you felt it — that was a hug.”
Barber hopes that viewers understand the turmoil that is the context for the sense of warmth and triumph in the film. “This is in the early 1970s, and if you look even at how even the people are dressed, you know that this is not long after we lost Dr. King,” he says. ”One of the lines of ‘Amazing Grace’ is ‘Through many dangers, toils and snares I’ve already come. ‘Twas grace that’s brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us on.’ And when Aretha sings that, she’s closing her eyes and singing from not only her physical belly, but the depths of history. It’s almost as though you can sense her voices saying: ‘Through many dangers: slavery. Through many dangers: Jim Crow. Through many dangers: lynchings. Through many dangers: Selma.’ And not just leaving us there, but ending with ‘we’ve already come.’ And in this moment we’re in right now, we need to be reminded of this grace that stands for truth in the midst of lies, the grace to care in the midst of uncaringness, and the grace to understand that although we are seeing some very ugly, narcissistic tendencies to divide, we’ve faced worse before.”
The current plan to roll out “Amazing Grace” includes the Detroit church premiere on March 25, a visit to the MLK Museum March 26, a screening at the Civil Rights Museum March 27, the Smithsonian March 28, the Stellar Awards performance on the 29th, the Image Awards on the 30th, the L.A. church visit on March 31, and a New York premiere some time in the first week of April presented by Time Inc., which has recently come on board as a co-producer for the film.