Not many, if any, of the great music documentaries or concert films have ever screened in the exact location where they were shot: “Woodstock” did not show at Woodstock, and “Wattstax” did not premiere at the L.A. Coliseum, needless to say. But Sunday night, “Amazing Grace” had its official southern California premiere right where the recording of Aretha Franklin’s live gospel album and belated movie accompaniment went down in 1972: the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.
Although the word may not exactly fit with the African-American Christian tradition, the word “mecca” was used a lot Sunday, in connection with intentions to turn the church and its surrounding area into a site that will be recognized by the city of L.A. as a civic monument to Franklin.
“To all of you who are here as visitors, we want you to save your directions in Waze, because we want you to come back,” said L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, addressing the crowd at a reception before the screening. “We will nominate and successfully declare New Temple Missionary Baptist Church a historic landmark in the city of Los Angeles. And so we thank you for being here, and we thank you for coming back.” Additionally, Harris-Dawson said,” in memorial of this neighborhood’s gift of culture to the world, as a beacon for the culture of former African slaves who made their way across the country to build this metropolis we call Los Angeles, on this past Friday we submitted a motion to the Los Angeles City Council and to the mayor to make 87th and Broadway Aretha Franklin Square.”
On top of all that, said L.A. County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, “We’re going to put in an application to have the Southern California Community Choir [which accompanies Franklin on record and film] designated on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with their own star. … We’re gonna do the historical designation and then we’re gonna do the walk of fame. She deserves that, doesn’t she? Doesn’t this choir deserve this? Doesn’t gospel music deserve it?”
Many of the original choir members were on hand for the premiere, including choir director Alexander Hamilton and standout soloist Mary Hall, who helped organize the screening. They gave an impromptu gospel performance of their own just off the red carpet in the blazing L.A. sun before the screening, while inside, the contemporary version of the Southern California Choir ran through two spirited numbers before the screening. Because the screen that was set up to show the film blocked the area where the choir sat in the filming, the choir members mostly sat amid the audience, creating a surround-sound effect better than anything available via THX.
Once the movie started, it wasn’t always easy to distinguish between the whoops and audience sing-alongs on screen and what was happening with the 2019 crowd. It didn’t hurt that the church building, formerly a neighborhood movie house, is virtually unchanged from how it was captured on screen in early 1972, except for the addition of eight earthquake-proofing pillars in the sanctuary and a changeover from the original theater seats to pews. When Lady Soul walks down the aisle on two occasions (one for each night of recording/filming), attendees turned around to imagine her there. A shot that the original director, Sydney Pollack, took through the projection room window prompted crowd members to turn around and see if that window was still there. It was, although, with a movie showing in the former Mayfair Theatre for most likely the first time since it was converted to a church in 1958, that projection room went unused and a digital projector was set up amid the rear pews.
For producer Alan Elliott, who bought the uncompleted film reels from Warner Bros. and shepherded the project for more than a decade, and two producers who came on to the movie later, Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and estate executor, and Tirrell Whittley, it was a homecoming to a home they had only previously seen through hundreds or (in Elliott’s case) thousands and thousands of hours of looking at the ’72 footage.
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SOURCE: NBC News; Variety