Aretha Franklin’s musical expressiveness and vocal power have ranked among the certainties of human achievement for more than 50 years, ever since her R&B single “Respect” was released in 1967. Her role was suddenly besmirched this summer, on the occasion of her funeral, which served as the pretext for an eight-hour-plus, live-streamed political rally: Competing Democratic-party operatives and politicians (from Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton to Jennifer Granholm) repeatedly praised Franklin in progressive terms as representing “women,” “blacks,” and “empowerment.”
Now, New York’s Film Forum is showing Amazing Grace, a documentary of Franklin recording her 1972 gospel album of the same title, a presentation that should retrieve Franklin’s reputation from the cramped, racially restricted, misinformed party line.
The Amazing Grace album was Franklin’s collaboration with California musician the Reverend James Cleveland and his New Temple Missionary Baptist Church choir. The film misses the opportunity to show their artistic rehearsal to emphasize the real-time recording. Cleveland tells the audience, “I want to remind you that this is a church, and we’re here for a religious experience.” But the documentary, directed by Sydney Pollack, whose only other doc was his last film Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006), lapses into the unexplored conundrum of live performance and cultural authenticity that confounds secular reviewers and scholars.
Here’s Franklin at age 30, in awesomely strong, ingeniously imaginative voice, looking trim and pretty in a white tunic and sequined bodice (later in a gray chinchilla coat), demonstrating her emotional roots in black Baptist faith and black popular communication. She starts the two-night recording with Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy” and moves through such church classics as “How I Got Over” and a pop-gospel medley of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” In the latter, the vigorous chorus (under the direction of choirmaster Alexander Hamilton) repeats “everythingeverythingeverything-oh-everything!” — giving modern, youthful, rhythmic intensity to the Protestant standard.
This artistic and personal transformation, which is part of what defines Franklin’s greatness, must always fight against the insulting insistence that black artists are naturally gifted, non-intellectual, and therefore best understood the way their exploiters see them — through a racial-justice lens, not as individuals working out their soul salvation.
The doc’s high points bear out this restorative contradiction: Franklin sings “Amazing Grace” in a tour de force of simultaneous beseeching, thinking, and rejoicing. At the end of “I Have Heard of a Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” she ad libs “I’m so glad I got religion!” It’s an archaic expression from the era when former slaves and descendants of slaves formed their moral and spiritual awareness through Christian precepts, similar to Afrocentric dogma about ancestors. Franklin wears Afrocentric garb on the Amazing Grace album cover; her pop-gospel emphasis fuses the traditional and revolutionary connection.
But it is the personal exhortation of Franklin’s artistry that must be reclaimed from the propagandists. A cut to Cleveland during “Amazing Grace” features the profound emotional display that is an irreducible truth of religious communication, accessed through singing God’s word in songs of personal experience (testifying). That prayerful moaning and celebration (“This is the sanctified church,” Cleveland states) combines reflection with devotion and is distinctively eloquent. In this millennium, secular black activists have become unrooted from that articulation — and have lost the emotional force and moral foundation that Franklin, even in this doc, still represents.
Pollack’s doc has two major flaws: The spectacle isn’t specific enough (as when the Reverend C. L. Franklin makes his mack-daddy entrance), and the camera frequently searches to catch Mick Jagger in the crowd (as if white rock royalty is needed to confer significance). No wonder Film Forum’s marquee boasts an embarrassing New York Times blurb: “Like a trip to the Moon.” It suggests that black experience is still alien.
The Democratic-party delegates ruling the dais at Franklin’s “homegoing” this summer were transparently attempting to galvanize Aretha’s fans and black and rhythm-and-blues fans. They were trying to assert a particular race- and culture-based partisanship, one that has been familiar since the time Aretha first made her impact on the American scene, during LBJ’s Sixties.
Democrats’ attempt to usurp (appropriate) black culture and black religion is unacceptable. Surely Aretha’s emotional expression transcends politics. (“I got to change your point of view,” she sings on “Until You Come Back to Me.”)
Admittedly, when Bill Clinton recalled Aretha’s “Think” (“It’s the key to freedom”) on the funeral dais, it was a cagey populist moment.
The plainly stated emotional needs of Aretha’s “Call Me (The Moment You Get There)” have been replaced by the greedy pornification of contemporary pop and hip-hop. Politics and “empowerment” are not why people responded to Franklin. That’s Murphy Brown nonsense.
Specious political praise of Franklin’s art turns it into something unreachable. It denies the youthful honesty of tracks such as “Baby I Love You” and “Think.” Goddess Aretha is unrecognizable. How can “Natural Woman” be praised in the era of Caitlyn Jenner? Her great tracks evoke a less cynical time.
The feeling of the “Respect” recording is more important than the idea behind its lyrics: You can live without another person’s respect (who hasn’t), because you hold self-respect inside you.
Is playing into the approval of white people the only way that bourgeois black people can think to confirm their significance? To reduce Franklin’s art to the propaganda of “empowerment” and activism disrespects the daily significance of the civil-rights movement and its basis in the sanctified church.