“We are on our way. . . . We’re on our journey home!” So declares the silver-clad choir, in buoyant triplets, upon entering the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in Watts, Los Angeles. Theirs is the first lyric in “Amazing Grace”—the Aretha Franklin documentary that will return to theatres this Friday and open in wide release on Easter weekend—and, though the song overtly charts a pilgrimage to Heaven, it also speaks to how Franklin’s recording of her 1972 gospel album, which the film documents, has long been considered a homecoming. In some ways, of course, it was: for two nights in January, the twenty-nine-year-old pop star revisited the religious songs that were her earliest training ground, accompanied by a family friend, the Reverend James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir. Her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, was in attendance, as was her mentor, Clara Ward. But what the film reveals is more complex than a simple return to her roots. It is less about coming home than about making a home—not a physical place or a heavenly afterlife but a feeling of easeful power born of belonging to and with other people.
Reviews of the film have described it as so transporting and transcendent that I was unprepared for the modesty of the director Sydney Pollack’s cinéma-vérité style, much less for how tired Franklin appears. She enters the church quickly and without fanfare. She’s done up beautifully—metallic-blue eye shadow, frosted lips, bunched pearl earrings beneath her neat Afro—but looks hesitant and fatigued, in that glassy-eyed way that marked her photographs for years. Seated at the piano, with the slightly stooped posture of someone who spent her childhood bent over the keys, she is not the iconic Queen of Soul but the woman Nikki Giovanni had protectively described, in her “Poem for Aretha,” from 1970, as “a mother with four children, having to hit the road”—a woman who, it seemed, had “to pass out before anyone recognizes she needs a rest.” By the time the cameras started rolling at New Temple Missionary, Franklin and the musicians had been rehearsing for days.
To see her up close is to see not just her vulnerability but also subtle pleasures: the expectant glint that she gets before delivering a potent phrase; her happy embarrassment at her father’s jokes; a quick smile back at the choir in the afterglow of a song. But, as Vinson Cunningham has noted, Franklin is clearly at work. She turns away from the microphone to clear her throat, asks for water, discusses the keys that songs are in, and placidly awaits the resolution of what Cleveland calls “technical difficulties.” She asks to re-start “Climbing Higher Mountains.” (“One more time,” she signals, polite yet no-nonsense.) Her whole face, in performance, is beaded with sweat. I wondered when someone would give her a towel.
At the same time, I realized, she might not have cared. Church was, in part, a place where she could be tired—where she had come to expect to be lifted up. Toward the end of “Never Grow Old,” the last song featured in the film, she sings quietly to herself, away from the mike, her face in shadow. The shot feels almost intrusive, like something we shouldn’t see. But it also reveals how much membership in a church community depends on a willingness to experience the deepest stirrings of the spirit alongside, in view of, others. What’s more, who wasn’t tired by 1972? In the thick of the Nixon years, in the fallout of riots that had detonated in Watts and other black cities across America, and in the wake of black deaths, of which Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination was only the most visible—when even good-natured Stevie Wonder noted, in a song released later that year, “You’ve killed all our leaders / We don’t even have to do nothing to you / You cause your own country to fall”—black people continued to ask whether America could be a home. The black church continued to serve the function it has long served: as an alternative site in which to create one.
We see this when, after Franklin takes respite in the shadows, Cleveland offers her the microphone and she, although seated, comes back in at full voice. The moment is startling, akin to the uncanny rise of crippled congregants moved by the Spirit. “I’m so glad I’ve got religion,” Franklin bellows. “My soul is satisfied.” Asserting her authority in the face of the evening’s patriarchs, Cleveland and her father, Franklin stands to face the choir and conducts a different kind of family affair: “Could I get you all to say, ‘I’m so glad I’ve got religion’ . . . We oughta say that one more time! I’m so glad! So glad! So glad . . . I’ve got religion. My soul is satisfied.”
“Amazing Grace,” by tracing the quotidian and inspired work of getting there, follows John Newton’s hymn of the same name—which, in both lyrical content and structural arc, seeks a place of soul-satisfied rest. The song is composed so that its melodic peak arrives on the word “grace,” which makes the rest of the line a dénouement leading down to the word “home.” Franklin, with her brilliant sense of dramatic timing and penchant for suspense, delays the resolution as long as possible. She sings five iterations of the word “through,” her melismas increasing in length and complexity and then tapering off after the third time to create a peak at the threshold of a verse about barriers to survival and faith:
Through, through, through, through, through many dangers, toils and snares,
I—I—I—I’ve been right here in the midst of it and have al—have already,
I have already—Jesus was with me and I’ve already come. Yes, I have . . .
The choir members, no longer on the spot themselves, are free to enjoy Franklin’s solo performance. Even their director, Alexander Hamilton, who has been jabbing multipart harmonies at them in a loose-limbed, angular dance all evening, just sits down and cheers Franklin on. She revs up and, when she hits the high C on “dangers,” several people behind her leap to their feet. But she proceeds to delay the word “home” for another five minutes. She lets the song hang in the air, unresolved, and joins Cleveland, who has gone to sit, overcome, with his head in his hands. The choir takes over, and Franklin, thus supported, revives and draws the song to its close. Together, they show how much work and encouragement it takes to make it home.
It is by now commonplace to say, as C. L. Franklin says of his daughter in the film, that Aretha “never left the church.” But the film reveals the equally crucial sense in which the church—that certainty of support, as steady as breath and as deep as a moan—never left her. At a time when the revolutionary energy of the black freedom movement could seem politically and spiritually exhausted, what sustained Franklin and many others was a belief that “We Shall Overcome” was not just a civil-rights slogan but a statement of divine destiny, and a sense of belonging among people with whom it was safe to be overcome—by fatigue, as by the spirit. That was the source of her power: the quiet, at-home thing she carried, and the people who carried her.