“We are on our way. . . . We’re on our journey home!” So declares the silver-clad choir, in buoyant triplets, upon entering the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in Watts, Los Angeles. Theirs is the first lyric in “Amazing Grace”—the Aretha Franklin documentary that will return to theatres on April 7th and open in wide release on Easter weekend—and, though the song overtly charts a pilgrimage to Heaven, it also speaks to how Franklin’s recording of her 1972 gospel album, which the film documents, has long been considered a homecoming. In some ways, of course, it was: for two nights in January, the twenty-nine-year-old pop star revisited the religious songs that were her earliest training ground, accompanied by a family friend, the Reverend James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir. Her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, was in attendance, as was her mentor, Clara Ward. But what the film reveals is more complex than a simple return to her roots. It is less about cominghome than about making a home—not a physical place or a heavenly afterlife but a feeling of easeful power born of belonging to and with other people.
Reviews of the film have described it as so transporting and transcendent that I was unprepared for the modesty of the director Sydney Pollack’s cinéma-vérité style, much less for how tired Franklin appears. She enters the church quickly and without fanfare. She’s done up beautifully—metallic-blue eye shadow, frosted lips, bunched pearl earrings beneath her neat Afro—but looks hesitant and fatigued, in that glassy-eyed way that marked her photographs for years. Seated at the piano, with the slightly stooped posture of someone who spent her childhood bent over the keys, she is not the iconic Queen of Soul but the woman Nikki Giovanni had protectively described, in her “Poem for Aretha,” from 1970, as “a mother with four children, having to hit the road”—a woman who, it seemed, had “to pass out before anyone recognizes she needs a rest.” By the time the cameras started rolling at New Temple Missionary, Franklin and the musicians had been rehearsing for days.
To see her up close is to see not just her vulnerability but also subtle pleasures: the expectant glint that she gets before delivering a potent phrase; her happy embarrassment at her father’s jokes; a quick smile back at the choir in the afterglow of a song. But, as Vinson Cunningham has noted, Franklin is clearly at work. She turns away from the microphone to clear her throat, asks for water, discusses the keys that songs are in, and placidly awaits the resolution of what Cleveland calls “technical difficulties.” She asks to re-start “Climbing Higher Mountains.” (“One more time,” she signals, polite yet no-nonsense.) Her whole face, in performance, is beaded with sweat. I wondered when someone would give her a towel.
At the same time, I realized, she might not have cared. Church was, in part, a place where she could be tired—where she had come to expect to be lifted up. Toward the end of “Never Grow Old,” the last song featured in the film, she sings quietly to herself, away from the mike, her face in shadow. The shot feels almost intrusive, like something we shouldn’t see. But it also reveals how much membership in a church community depends on a willingness to experience the deepest stirrings of the spirit alongside, in view of, others. What’s more, who wasn’t tired by 1972? In the thick of the Nixon years, in the fallout of riots that had detonated in Watts and other black cities across America, and in the wake of black deaths, of which Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination was only the most visible—when even good-natured Stevie Wonder noted, in a song released later that year, “You’ve killed all our leaders / We don’t even have to do nothing to you / You cause your own country to fall”—black people continued to ask whether America could be a home. The black church continued to serve the function it has long served: as an alternative site in which to create one.
We see this when, after Franklin takes respite in the shadows, Cleveland offers her the microphone and she, although seated, comes back in at full voice. The moment is startling, akin to the uncanny rise of crippled congregants moved by the Spirit. “I’m so glad I’ve got religion,” Franklin bellows. “My soul is satisfied.” Asserting her authority in the face of the evening’s patriarchs, Cleveland and her father, Franklin stands to face the choir and conducts a different kind of family affair: “Could I get you all to say, ‘I’m so glad I’ve got religion’ . . . We oughta say that one more time! I’m so glad! So glad! So glad . . . I’ve got religion. My soul is satisfied.”