On January 13, 1972, a young corduroy-clad filmmaker named Sydney Pollack arrived at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles where Aretha Franklin was recording a live album of gospel standards. The album, Amazing Grace, would eventually reach double-platinum status and turn into the biggest seller of Franklin’s career. However, back on that January day in Bethel Baptist Church it was simply something she was recording with a church choir. Pollack was on hand to turn the recording session into a documentary with the help of five 16mm cameras, a small film crew and a handful of sound engineers. The documentary would come out at the same time as the album, and though Pollack had never made a music documentary before the head of Warner Bros. assumed the filmmaker knew what he was doing. After all, he’d just made They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Pollack spent two days recording Franklin, but he ended up with 20 hours of worthless footage. He forgot to bring any clapper boards with him, and without those snapping shut at the beginning of each take the sound and picture never synchronized properly. Plus, with no clapper boards to act as signposts for the editors the resulting rolls of film looked like a giant jigsaw puzzle. No matter how many months the editors put into it, they couldn’t synchronize the video and audio nor could they put the footage in complete order. In the ensuing decades, Pollack routinely pondered the idea of finally syncing everything up and giving the world the long-lost Aretha Franklin documentary, but he’d always get busy with something else.
Now, it’s 43 years later, and a former Atlantic Records A&R rep named Alan Elliott has gone back and finished the documentary. He mortgaged his home in order to purchase the Amazing Grace negatives from Warner Bros., and he worked with Pollack on it up until the director’s cancer-related death in 2008. Two years after that, he finally succeeded in syncing the movie. However, then Aretha Franklin stepped forward to stop Amazing Grace from seeing the light of day. In 2011, she sued Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission, and they settled out of court. As part of that settlement, he agreed not to show Amazing Grace without her permission.
It’s four years later, and she was just granted an injunction to prevent today’s premiere of Amazing Grace at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. She’s similarly seeking to prevent it from screening at next weekend’s Toronto Film Festival.
Why is Elliott trying to show Amazing Grace if Franklin clearly doesn’t want him to? Because when he settled suit with her a couple of years ago she had all the leverage. He’d successfully located all of the 1972 legal release forms signed by everyone who is featured in the documentary other than the star herself. Franklin’s contract was mysteriously missing, but it’s not missing anymore. As The Hollywood Reporter explained:
The reason Elliott hadn’t been able to locate it was because her paperwork had been signed in 1969, not 1972 — and what she signed was a personal service contract for both the movie studio and record label that effectively gave them full rights to the material filmed in the Watts church (and now, Elliott believes, he’s got the rights, as the film’s new owner).
What 1969 Aretha Franklin and 2015 Aretha Franklin agreed to are two different things, though. 2015 Franklin’s former lawyer said, “Once we make a decision [to litigate], Alan Elliott won’t be able to show that film in his garage.”
It’s up the lawyers to figure everything out from here, and these type of “Did the transfer of ownership of the physical materials and copyright invalidate prior contracts?” lawsuits are quite common in Hollywood. To this point, Franklin has not commented on why she is standing in the way of Amazing Grace, but what might be at play here is that the Queen of Soul wants to be compensated. There’s a new documentary all about the recording of one of her best albums, and she’s not getting anything directly from it, cut out of any distribution sale Elliott might land on the film festival circuit. At the moment, Elliott can simply conclude, “I understand she’s used to getting paid a lot of money to do promotion for a project like this. But I hope at some point she will come around. I always want to do right by Aretha.”
Here’s the trailer: