Try to sit through the two minutes and 38 seconds of the Amazing Grace trailer without getting the least bit emotional. We dare you. In fact, we’ll wait.
It’s been less than three months since Aretha Franklin died, but now, a Sydney Pollack-directed documentary chronicling the recording of her seminal 1972 live gospel double album Amazing Grace is finally due to make it to the screen.
As lovers of the Queen of Soul know, Amazing Grace would ultimately become a crossover hit with religious and secular audiences alike, selling over two million copies—a tremendous feat in the pre-streaming era—and is still considered one of Franklin’s most revered works. The accompanying documentary, filmed while Franklin recorded the album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, was initially intended to be released on a double bill with another 1972 hit, Super Fly in 1972.
Instead it languished for decades in vaults at the Warner Bros. studio, unable to be completed due to Pollack’s mistake of not using a clapperboard to synchronize the picture and sound at the beginning of each take. Producer Alan Elliott was granted possession of the film prior to Pollack’s death in 2008 and devoted the next two years meticulously synchronizing the footage to bring the film to completion.
But when Elliott attempted to release the film in 2011, he was sued by Franklin for using her likeness without permission—a suit deemed invalid by the discovery of Franklin’s original contract with Warner Bros. But a second suit in 2015 resulted in an emergency injunction that prevented Elliott from screening the film at film festivals, referencing the original contract in a judgment that weighed in favor of Franklin, who had not given her permission for the film to be released and distributed.
“In 2008, a producer named Alan Elliott obtained rights to the footage of the concert from Warner Bros. Studios via a quitclaim deed,” the ruling stated. “The quitclaim deed makes specific reference to the need to get Ms. Franklin’s permission to use the concert footage.”
Franklin never outlined any other specific objections to the footage (which she reportedly “loved,” according to the New York Times), but had a apparently been opposing its release for years. After the injunction was ordered, she issued a statement saying, “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.”
However, with Franklin’s death in August of this year, the opportunity once again arose to release this storied footage to the legions of fans who have awaited it—some for the 46 years since it was initially recorded. And with Franklin’s estate now in the hands of her niece, Sabrina Owens, the way is now clear.
“Her fans need to see this film, which is so pure and so joyous,” Owens said in an interview with the Times. “And the world needs to see it. Our country, it’s in such a state right now.”
Owens did not disclose the terms of the deal she reached with Elliott and the films’ producers, but Amazing Grace will finally premiere on Monday, November 12, at the documentary-focused film festival Doc NYC in New York City. And in a bid for a 2019 Academy Award nomination, subsequent one-week runs will take place in Los Angeles and New York. For those located in neither market, the Times reports that the film may be in wide release as soon as January, possibly timed to premiere in tandem with the birthday of Franklin compatriot Martin Luther King Jr.
As for producer Alan Elliott, who fought so hard—even against Franklin herself—to present this film to the public, he promises that the film is a tribute to the incomparable talent of the Queen of Soul.
“We want to honor her legacy,” Elliott told the Times. “Her artistry and her genius are alive in every frame.”