Rev. C.L Franklin once told a story about picking up some clothes from a local cleaners in Detroit and the clerk told him that she wished his daughter Aretha would return to the church. His response was: “She never left the church.”
The Queen of Soul, who would have turned 77 on Monday, was known for her secular music, but her roots are in the church, singing for her father at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. As Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” film made its debut in her hometown of Detroit, ahead of its nationwide release April 19, producers of the film unearthed footage of Franklin where it all started for her; singing in church.
Hundreds packed the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Detroit Film Theatre for the occasion, most of them guests of the Franklin family, for a glimpse at the critically acclaimed film. Shot January 13-14 in 1972 and assembled decades later by producer Alan Elliott into a final cut, Amazing Grace is a time capsule of a 29-year-old Franklin recording “Amazing Grace,” the top-selling live gospel album in history. Joining her at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles was the good-humored Rev. Dr. James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir.
“I found out the footage was there 29 years ago and the man who produced the record told me about it,” said Elliott, who is a music professor at UCLA. “It kind of got stuck in my brain and then we finally decided to do it. We know Aretha always used to host big parties on her birthday and we figured we’d throw her one big party for her birthday.”
Ahead of the screening, hundreds of guests gathered for a gala at the nearby Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, where the lively mood sharply contrasted with the last notable Aretha Franklin gathering there — her public viewing in August. Guests included Tommy Hearns, Martha Reeves, Rev. William Barber II, and New Bethel Baptist Church pastor Robert Smith, among others.
“I think that is vitally important that the spiritual side of Aretha be captured in the press,” said Smith, who has been the pastor of Franklin’s father’s church since his passing in 1984. “Fifty years from now, when people like me that grew up in the 60s are all gone, nobody will know her spiritual side. So Detroit and the New Bethel Baptist Church really appreciates this.”
The Detroit Film Theatre was transformed into a Baptist church on a Sunday morning for 87 minutes while the filmed played. While Franklin performed songs from album such as “Amazing Grace”, “Mary Don’t You Weep”, “Wholy Holy” and ‘Precious Memories,” clapping, cheering, and singing punctuated the showing. Franklin’s father even made an appearance in the film, along with gospel great Clara Ward and rock star Mick Jagger.
“It’s an interesting film, because, technically, it feels really rough and raw,” said co-producer Tirrell Whittley. “I would call it as very pure and her sound is something special. It’s like a sonic boom and that’s the part that you can’t replicate.”
Franklin’s niece Sabrina Garrett Owens helped get the long-shelved film to see the light of day, after first seeing it years ago and gave it rave reviews. A large contingent of the Franklin family was also in attendance, including Aretha Franklin’s sons, Edward, Kecalf, and Clarence.
“I’m very excited about tonight, everybody’s coming out, all the beautiful people,” Owens said. “I’m looking forward to them seeing the film. I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.”
“It really moved me. The Gospel music just moved me, seeing Aretha during that time period, in her youth, her shyness, it’s all really nice.”
The Detroit premiere was the first of several special events planned around the country ahead of the April 19 release, including Montgomery, Alabama (March 27), Atlanta (March 27), Las Vegas (March 28), Los Angeles (March 31), New York (April 2) and Nashville (April 9). A second screening was shown Tuesday night.
Whittley, speaking onstage ahead of the showing, urged the ministers in attendance to encourage group ticket purchases and even theater buyouts for area congregations.