Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings begin Wednesday. The event screens films that are generating Oscar buzz for the both the general public and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The festival kicks off with “Amazing Grace,” a documentary about a legendary gospel performance by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin recorded her bestselling album "Amazing Grace" in front of an audience of gospel fans at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972. Filmmaker Sydney Pollack shot the two-day performance, but problems with syncing the sound with the images made the footage unusable.
The producer of "Amazing Grace," Alan Elliot, took up the project about eleven years ago. He turned all the original film over to a Hollywood laboratory with the technology to fix Pollack's error.
"Luckily, I didn’t have to have to spend the horrible time that Sydney did not being able to see the footage sunc together and only having the memory of how special the nights were," said Elliot.
The film seems raw. There are no interviews. It simply puts viewers in the church pews as Franklin belts out gospel tunes, sweat pouring off her face. However, Elliot says he brought a structure to the movie that was heavily influenced by musical theatre.
"The introduction of the characters in a very casual way, going into the first song, which in Broadway parlance is what they call an "I wish" song. That starts out the movie, which is Aretha’s favorite song -- Holy Holy," said Elliot.
Toward the end of her life, Franklin sued to block the film from being released. She never said why, but Elliot has a theory. He thinks seeing herself at the height of her powers in 1972, as she was suffering from pancreatic cancer forty years later, was simply too emotional.
"The movie, although it’s very uptempo is really a mortality check, and I can only imagine what it was like for her, being as sick as she was," he said.
After Franklin’s death in 2016, Elliot rented out a theatre in Detroit and screened “Amazing Grace” for Franklin’s extended family.
It was an interesting juxtoposition for people who had just buried Aretha to see her in all that vibrancy and all that life, and when it was done, the whole family was so excited about the movie," said Elliot.
Often during awards season, film studios throw high-dollar parties to woo potential Oscar voters. Elliot says that instead, he wants to honor Franklin’s legacy by encouraging people to give to causes close to the Franklin family, like the Poor People’s Campaign and the effort to restore clean drinking water to Flint, Michigan
“Amazing Grace” starts at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wheeler. Academy Screenings run through Sunday.