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Aretha Franlkin concert documentary screens in Detroit for her birthday
DETROIT -- The Queen of Soul may be dead. But her birthday was still a cause for celebration on Monday night, March 25, in her home town.
What would have been Aretha Franklin's 77th birthday was observed with the Detroit premiere of "Amazing Grace," the long-delayed documentary about the making of her Grammy Award-winning 1972 gospel album of the same name. Originally directed by the late Sydney Pollock and canned because of technical issues, the film was finally finished by Alan Elliott, hand-picked by Pollock. It premiered last November and was shown Monday at the Detroit Film Theatre as part of a Franklin birthday celebration that included a pre-screening black-tie reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and an afterglow in the Detroit Institute of Arts attended by a crowd of family -- including sons Clarence, Edward and Kel -- and friends, including Motown great and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Martha Reeves and boxing champion Thomas Hearns.
The family also held a memorial service earlier in the day at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery, where Franklin is buried.
"We're celebrating Aretha's birthday, and that's always a pleasure," her sister-in-law Earline Franklin said before the screening. "If she was her we would've had a grand party with a beautiful cake and flowers. Everybody would have been so dressed up, like we are tonight." She added that though Franklin resisted having "Amazing Grace" released for much of her life, she would be happy with the 87-minute film captured during two performances during January of 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles -- sessions that resulted in the best-selling gospel album of all time.
"Of course she would be happy," Franklin said. "I'm just so excited that it finally got out of the can, and...tonight everybody can have a chance to take a look at it and give their opinion."
The response during the screening was, not surprisingly, positive and raucous with the crowd singing and clapping along as the images of Franklin performing with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, along with her regular band, paraded across the screen. There were also big cheers for appearances by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and gospel great Clara Ward.
"Amazing Grace" will be opening in theaters during April, including special screenings at the Martin Luther King Museum in Atlanta, the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Ala., at the Stellar Awards and the NAACP Image Awards and for the Black Congressional Caucus in Washington, D.C. The film will be shown March 31 back at New Temple Missionary, while longtime Franklin executive producer Clive Davis and the Rev. Al Sharpton are hosting an April 2 screening in New York City.
Producers are planning other stops around the country, including summer amphitheaters such as the Hollywood
"It's very emotional," said Lisa McCall, who worked as a choreographer with Franklin for 30 years. "Just seeing her in her element again on film is emotional, but in a great way...learning more about her and celebrating her legacy."
That's exactly the reason co-producers Elliott, Terrill D. Whittley and Sabrina Owens, Franklin's niece, want to spread "Amazing Grace" far and wide. "Everyone knows about 'Respect,' we know about her in 'The Blues Brothers,' we know about her at the Kennedy Center (Honors), but not many people know about Aretha at church and her singing gospel music," Whittley said on Monday. "I feel Aretha's legacy deserves to be established the best and the right way, and this film is one of the first long-form content pieces to hit the market after her passing. To really show people that Aretha, even at the age of 29, was a powerhouse in church was really something special."
Whittley also noted that for "Amazing Grace," "Detroit is ground zero. This is where it started" -- with Franklin singing at her father's New Bethel Baptist Church. "We're going to have to win Detroit if we're going to win anywhere else." He credited Owens with insuring that "American Grace" would have a premiere in Detroit before moving on to other cities.
"Sabrina said, 'Listen, when we have this premiere it has to be formal. This is what Aretha would want. This is Detroit. If you're gonna do it, you've gotta do it right'," Whittley recalled.
Prior to Monday's screening, Dr. Bishop William J. Barber II -- who will accompany the producers at all other special screenings -- delivered a truncated version of his eulogy from Franklin's funeral last August. He again declared that "her voice could help you hear God's voice...she was a prophetic gift to the world" and primed the crowd for the experience it was about to have with the film. "Tonight we don't welcome you to the theater -- we welcome you to the freedom church!" Barber also led the crowd in singing a posthumous "Happy Birthday" to Franklin after the screening.
Elliott, who worked 29 years to bring "Amazing Grace" out, was moved by the home town reception on Monday. "To have her birthday, to be in her home town with her family, to be her with the movie, to premiere the movie...It's a eulogy for her life, the movie," he said. "It allows those of us now to experience and have that sense of seeing Aretha at the height of her heights, in the holiest of holies. It's great that people can finally witness that."
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