In 1972, Aretha Franklin went back to church. Following a series of number 1s in the R&B charts she booked a Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles to record her next album. It was to be live, and with both a Community Choir and a loud congregation. The genre was to be strictly gospel.
This was very much a religious album. Aretha was introduced by the reverend James Cleveland, an old family friend, who plays piano and provides some singing. Most of the songs are gospel songs, but even those with a different background – such as the cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” – make it clear that this friend is Jesus.
And yet the biblical character who features most in the repertoire is not Jesus but Moses, who took his oppressed people out of the wilderness and to the edge of the Promised Land. The congregation is full of Afros (a couple of shots of the long haired Mick Jagger prove to be an exception) and the music is the music of contemporary Black America. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the film crew appear to be almost universally white and they sometimes seem to intrude on the ceremony.
Sydney Pollack filmed the concerts on two consecutive days at an important juncture in US American racial history. The Black community was starting to overcome the tragedies of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the previous decade. Already in 1968 James Brown has said it loud (he’s black and proud) and the previous year had seen both Marvin Gaye’s epic protest “What’s Going On” and the film “Shaft” (which was to lead to Isaac Hayes being the first black musician to win an Oscar).
These developments are recognisable in the audience who are enthusiastic, but also confident. They are aware of the injustices which they experience in everyday life, but are doing something about it. For the Watts congregation, religion is not so much an opium, dulling their senses, but more like speed, inspiring them to further action. This is not the sort of religion we got fed at Wibsey Methodist Chapel.
Aretha’s singing matches this mood perfectly. Towards the end of the film, her father, the reverend C.L. Franklin gets up and makes a speech in which he recalls a recent conversation with someone who said that Aretha’s R&B hits were ok, but they wished that she would return to the church. Calmly, and with dignity, C.L. says, she never left the church.
C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Trotskyist, famously asked “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” In a similar vein, I think that people who enjoy Aretha’s singing but see religion as something that is entirely reprehensible will not be able to fully appreciate this film. I do not believe in God, but there is clearly something wonderful in this lively gathering which uses religion as the channel to oppose their daily suffering. We also see the way in which religion enables them to come together and collectively resist.
Maybe a few final words about the genesis of this film. It was supposed to accompany the album, but someone messed up on the blocking and sound synchronisation, which made it unlistenable. A couple of years ago, someone finally produced a version that was fit to be viewed, but its release was vetoed by Aretha.
This release followed her death, which casts a pale shadow on the whole thing. On the one hand, it feels disrespectful to so blatantly ignore her wishes. On the other, the finished product is so compelling that it would have been a tragedy to have missed out.
That moral discussion perhaps belongs elsewhere, as arguably does some of the sociology that I’ve brought into this review. Ultimately, this is a recording of one of the world’s greatest singers at the top of her game. That should be reason enough to try and catch this film. The rest is just an added bonus.