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Alan Elliott at the premiere of Amazing Grace at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church
Rachel Luna/Getty Images

Alan Elliott: ‘Aretha didn’t want a film that felt like a eulogy’

The music-producer-turned-director on the epic quest to make his Aretha Franklin documentary ‘Amazing Grace’

Written by
Thomas Hobbs

When Aretha Franklin played an intimate gig in an LA church in January 1972, the audio track was turned into the highest-selling gospel album of all time. However, most people were unaware that the performance had been filmed too. That footage was mishandled by director Sydney Pollack, then mothballed. Enter music producer Alan Elliott, who has spent 30 years magicking it into a spectacular music doc, ‘Amazing Grace’. He shares its incredible story.

Why has it taken so long to make this film?
‘Sydney [Pollack] used an inexperienced crew to film [the gig] and it was a bit of a mess. When I found out about the footage in 1990, I knew I had to fix it but there’s been a lot of obstacles: I had to remortgage my house, then Aretha sued me. It was painful, but when I found out she had cancer I understood. She didn’t want there to be a film that felt like a eulogy.’

What is it that makes this gig so special?
‘Aretha’s energy is like this tsunami and it feels like the building is going to implode. The small setting gives it a unique intimacy too. I watched Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” and she could fit ten of those churches on that stage.’

Aretha Franklin performing in ‘Amazing Grace’.

What do you think is driving her on stage? 
‘She’s aware Diana Ross and Barbara Streisand are also making films, and she knows she has to nail this performance [to remind people who the Queen of Soul is]. Remember, there’s so much footage of The Beatles and other white musical acts, but this footage of a black genius has been sitting in a storage facility for 36 years. It’s important that people finally see it.’

The film never leaves the church. Why not?
‘We didn’t want to do a typical talking-heads structure, but make it more of an experience. Sydney, who I worked with right up until his death in 2008, suggested we get Quincy Jones on camera in ‘Amazing Grace’ but I said no. It was always important to me that the viewer never left the church. It’s pure escapism.’

Do you have a favourite moment?
‘The part where Aretha’s father wipes the sweat from her brow while she’s singing really touches me. I have daughters and know that feeling. Also, when she’s singing “[I’ll] Never Grow Old”. That gained a lot of resonance when she passed away.’

‘Amazing Grace’ opens Fri May 10. Read our review here

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