Amazing Grace, the 1972 concert recording of Aretha Franklin, is finally getting wide release in mid-April (Easter weekend, in fact, and appropriately so). The film had its Florida premiere yesterday at the Gasparilla International Film Festival here in Tampa. (It’s having its Detroit premiere tumorrow night at the Detroit Film Theatre.) The film is directed by the acclaimed Sydney Pollack, a major director of the era who oversaw films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) The Way We Were (1973), and Tootsie (1982). Amazing Grace was shot over two nights at The Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Aretha’s performance, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, is probably the gospel performance for the ages, at least as captured on film. It’s amazing that, almost 50 years since being shot, the movie is only now getting released, having had all sorts of difficulties from technical problems (audio-video sync) to contractual issues between the artist and the filmmakers. Her family estate finally agreed to release it after Aretha’s death last summer. While Aretha may have been the Queen of Soul and by the early 1970s had already released perhaps her most iconic hits, Respect, Chain of Fools and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, she returned to her Gospel roots in 1972 with the recorded concert for the album by the same name, Amazing Grace. In the film, a still quite young Aretha is composed and subdued between songs but rises to the occasion – boy, does she ever – during them. Her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, introduced her and said that, contrary to opinion given Aretha’s superstardom, “if you want to know the truth she never left the church.” Besides Aretha’s riveting singing the film also features the fabulous choir who, in certain cases, enraptured, can’t help themselves by rising and shouting back at the singer, even when they aren’t performing. And there is Mick Jagger, just another member of the audience, clapping and singing along.
Tomorrow, by Martha Pinson, is a first-time directorial effort which, like several other debut films at this festival, is more than competently handled. It’s a charming story about Tesla (Sebastian Street) a British army vet, disabled after a bomb blast in Afghanistan, who finds a new career and love back home in London. The movie is mainly a character study among four friends (two couples) – Tesla and Katie (Stephanie Leonidas), and Sky (Stuart Brennan) and Lee-Ann (Sophie Kennedy Clark). The story lines are affecting, with all the characters having their own romantic and career struggles, and good times and bad, set against the backdrop of contemporary London.
And, unfortunately, in the “this is two hours of my life I’ll never get back” category, is The Parting Glass (Stephen Moyer), a film which comes off as a contemporary version of a Chekov play. It follows an extended family as they arrive in Missouri after the suicide of a sibling, Colleen (Anna Paquin). But the story is monotonous as the group ventures along highways and byways to reach their sister’s former residence, with petty annoyances, disagreements and misunderstandings along the way. This film is difficult, even painful, to watch, and while there are good performances from the likes of Cynthia Nixon (Mare) and Ed Asner (the father), its overall effect is tedious and irritating.
The Tampa Bay Gasparilla International Film Festival ends today.