Adam Graham The Detroit News
Published 11:45 PM EST Nov 9, 2018
When Aretha Franklin’s long-buried concert film “Amazing Grace” is finally seen by audiences, producer Tirrell Whittley doesn’t expect it to be a passive experience.
“I’m looking for a certain level of up front energy and anticipation,” says Whittley. “I want people to feel the energy out the gate.”
The first test comes Monday at New York’s DOC NYC festival, where the 1972 film will be publicly unveiled after decades of drama. The film sat unfinished for years, marred by technical issues, and was later the subject of legal wrangling that kept it on the shelf.
Now that it’s ready to be seen, Whittley doesn’t expect audiences to hold back.
“This is a worship film,” says Whittley, who at 46 is as old as the film itself. “This is not the kind of movie you sit quietly and you respect the filmmaking and the cinematography and the sound and the mixing. If you feel like saying, ‘Amen,’ if you feel like throwing your hands up, if a ‘Hallelujah!’ has to come out, if you want to clap or hum or sing along, that’s what this movie is about. I expect the theater not to be quiet.”
“Amazing Grace” documents Franklin’s two-night stand at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January 1972. The Grammy-winning live album from the performance is largely regarded as Franklin’s crowning achievement; it went on to sell 2 million copies, becoming the best-selling album of her career.
The companion film has long existed in limbo. Because of the way director Sydney Pollack shot it, without using clapboards, it was difficult to sync the sound between different cuts in post-production. The project was abandoned and collected dust for years, until around 1990 when a crew of editors took another crack at assembling it.
It continued to languish for years, but was finally finished and ready for release in 2015. It was seen in several distributor screenings prior to a festival run, but its release was blocked at the eleventh hour by an injunction from Franklin’s camp. With Franklin’s health worsening, the team behind the film didn’t press matters going forward.
Following Franklin’s death in August, producers showed a cut of the film to Franklin’s family members during a screening at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in September. The screening was deeply emotional, says Whittley, who came on to the project as a producer in 2012. With the family’s stamp of approval, Whittley and his team decided to surge forward and get the film in front of audiences as quickly as possible.
“The time is right now,” he says.
Following Monday’s screening in New York, the film will be rolled out for weeklong runs in New York and Los Angeles in order to qualify for consideration for this year’s Academy Awards.
And then there’s Detroit.
“We have to do Detroit as big as possible,” says Whittley, who says the film could make it here by the end of the year. “New York is going to be great, and if we do something in L.A., that’s going to be wonderful. But Detroit is where we have to make the biggest impact.”
While the film currently lacks a distributor, Whittley and his team are marching forward regardless. “Everything about this, thus far, has been untraditional,” he says. “But the movie stands on its own.”
Whittley says he’s received requests from around the world to screen the film — there’s been interest in Japan, Amsterdam, China, England and more, he says — but he knows the film’s screenings in Aretha’s hometown will be special.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Detroit will be like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
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