A couple of films opening this week in Houston have literally been sitting on the shelf or in active development for decades.
“Amazing Grace” was shot in January of 1972 and documents Aretha Franklin recording what would go on to be the best-selling gospel album of all time, as well as her own best-selling recording.
For reasons that are both succinct and vague, the documentary, directed by Sydney Pollack, has languished in obscurity, residing in studio vaults until now.
One story posits that the individual shots were not properly slated, which made synchronization of the visual and sound elements difficult. Pollack passed away in 2008, and the project landed in the lap of producer Alan Elliot, who tried to release the then-0completed version in 2011 using digital technology that worked around the synch problems. He was unfortunately halted mid-step by a lawsuit from Franklin herself.
Once again, “Amazing Grace” was set to premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, only to be cancelled after another legal injunction. “Amazing Grace” finally saw the light of day at a documentary film festival in NYC last November.
The film rolls into Houston in an exclusive engagement at the River Oaks Theatre starting Thursday, April 11.
Franklin was originally signed to Columbia Records, although the majority of her 1960s hits were from her subsequent move to Atlantic Records. Franklin had become the Queen of Soul, and in the early 1970s she decided to return to her roots as a gospel singer.
The fact that gospel and soul influenced rock and roll is evident by the fact that Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are easily seen in the audience rocking out to Franklin’s delivery.
Pollack was fresh off an Oscar nomination as the director of “They Shoot Horses Don’t They,” and Warner Brothers was looking to replicate the musical doc success of their previous release of “Woodstock.”
The footage in the film was shot at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, California over two days.
The lawsuits beg the question as to what objection Franklin had with the footage and assembled result. She’s in top form in the film, and is backed by a band that includes guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Bernard Purdie, led by the Rev. James Cleveland, and with Alexander Hamilton (it’s not an uncommon name) conducting the choir.
Perhaps the most poignant moments are Franklin’s father, C. L. Franklin, himself a Baptist minister, being present and at one point going up to Aretha, who’s seated at a piano and rocking away, and wiping the sweat off her brow with an handkerchief.
Musical interludes include “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” along with many others. On both nights, the band played an instrumental version of “My Sweet Lord.”
The viewer recognizes the songs and visual references of celebs in the audiences, yet there’s the clear subtext of the devotion of the performers to their craft in sharp contrast to the shots that include the director and camera crew. We know in retrospect that Pollack made a big mistake in not using a clapperboard that would’ve allowed the film to be edited immediately. Pollack, despite being known for such great films as “Tootsie” and “Three Days of the Condor,” simply dropped the ball and his repeated cameos in the film merely adds substance to his continuity mistakes.
Franklin never fails to slap across her interpretation of age-old classics in a manner that reignites passion in the music. Just the fact that she jams out on a piano while singing only increases her musical cred.
“Amazing Grace” was obviously cleared for release after Franklin’s passing last year in August by the family estate. Regardless of the money grab, this is a film that demands instant attention while grooving to its future cult status..
Every time Franklin belts out her brand of inspired warbling, you’re simply glued to the screen.
Another case where a film took years to come to fruition is Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”
Gilliam, famous for being a member of Monty Python (the only American member), has made films as diverse as “The Fisher King,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Time Bandits” and “Brazil.”
There have been so many incarnations of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” that you’re reminded of the multiple versions of “Blade Runner” that exist on its disc afterlife. But instead of director’s version and studio version and television version, you have the original shoot with stars Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp playing Quixote and Grisoni respectively in 1998.
On the second day of production, a massive flood destroyed the existing sets. Plus, Rochefort injured himself and was unable to continue. Over the years, attempts to make the film included John Hurt in the Quixote role and heated relations between Gilliam and the producers.
The movie unwinds with a sense of grandeur, with Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce in the lead roles. Earlier versions of the movie that involved time travel have been altered to depict all events as taking place in the same linear year.
For instance, a party sequence set at a castle has the cast dressed in costumes that evoke the past.
Driver plays a director who was once an indie darling. He now finds himself working on commercials under the supervision of an artistic director whose wife he covets. During filming Driver reconnects with actors, who worked for him on an independent film ten years previous.
Elements of fantasy loom large, and Gilliam is definitely in his territory with this film. Just think of the set design of “Brazil” mixed with the abstraction of “Baron Munchausen.”
So why is “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” just being shown for one day? That’s the dichotomy of the new millennium. You may have a relevant message, but why didn’t you just post it as an afterthought to your merely being alive? Gilliam no longer matters, Orson Welles no longer matters; it’s the latest wave in the ocean of culture. Roll with it and be glad that you could participate before the end of cinema.
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” plays for one night as a Fathom Event at area theaters on Wednesday, April 10.