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Going home with Aretha and Beyoncé

Neon via AP

Neon via AP

I don’t believe in God but I believe in Aretha Franklin.

And sometimes that feels like cheating. After all, what made Aretha one of the (ten? six? three? does the exact number even matter once you’ve narrowed it down that far?) greatest singers in pop history isn’t merely her physical gifts or her sheer determination or her musical intelligence or her diva attitude, though of course all of those vague but actual qualities play their role in the creation of the vague but actual quality we call “soul.” It’s not even just what this nonbeliever would like to rationalize as a “spiritual tradition.” It is also, quite literally, Christianity.

Among other things, the long delayed not-exactly-documentary/not-quite-concert-film Amazing Grace, like the album whose creation it witnesses, forces secular Aretha fans to address that faith front and center. The January 1972 session/performance was filmed by Sydney Pollack, who can be seen darting around the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts as though his crew’s beaching at Normandy. And the event truly was an ordeal: Pollack didn’t synch the audio during production, so the footage was unusable for nearly four decades. After producer Alan Elliott salvaged it in 2010, Aretha Franklin sued to prevent distribution for the same reason Aretha Franklin did most things: because she could. Then she died.

In Amazing Grace we see (and hear) Franklin in her prime at 29—if she’d vanished from the Earth before she strode toward the altar to join her friend Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, her previous five years as a hitmaker would have already secured her legacy. The album itself, Amazing Grace, is, as you might expect, the best-selling gospel album of all time; it’s also, as you might not expect, the best-selling album of Aretha Franklin’s career.

If soul secularized gospel, Franklin takes the opposite tack here, sanctifying pop. She begins with Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy,” and later transforms Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” into something weightier than James Taylor’s wan familiar of companionship. What you hear in Franklin’s voice isn’t the certainty of Jesus’ friendship, but the need for it. As that pop song flows into a medley with “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” the assurance of the choir creates a dialectic with Franklin’s pain, struggle balanced with deliverance. The call-and-response format frees Franklin from carrying the melody and allows her to riff off songs like “Mary Don’t You Weep” she’d surely known since she was a girl, and by the time she arrives at the film’s title hymn, her voice rings out with absolute conviction, shouts from the choir driving her on.

The film brims with outsized personalities. There are, of course, the preachers: Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, his deliberate oratory steeped in Baptist tradition, contrasting with the more hep James Cleveland, who undercuts his own seriousness with a knowing self-deprecation. Choir director Alexander Hamilton is a dynamo, but the breakout star is one short male choir member with a killer process who looks like nothing less than a black Elton John, and one woman overwhelmed by the spirit who has to be restrained by gospel great (and Aretha mentor) Clara Ward also deserves mention. Mick Jagger, skulking politely around in the crowd, is maybe the 30th most charismatic person in the room.

Parkwood Entertainment/Netflix via AP

Parkwood Entertainment/Netflix via AP

And Aretha herself? “I was unprepared... for how tired Franklin appears,” Emily Lordi recently wrote in an essay on the film for the New Yorker. And, I’d add, shy... or maybe simply businesslike, a professional hard at work? The woman at the core of this film remains inscrutable, at home at yet isolated, far from a superstar, at her most comfortable behind the protective barrier of her piano.

For skeptical rock fans, Amazing Grace can sound like a retreat into the safety of the familiar; for devout believers it’s just as tempting to hear it as Aretha revealed in her element at last. But Franklin’s overall career suggests that neither view is wholly accurate: She continually shunned safety and refused to allow any single sound to define her. What was consistently remarkable about Aretha Franklin as an artist wasn’t just her timbre or melisma or whatever audible ineffability you want to lump under the term “voice.” It wasn’t even her versatility, her willingness and ability to adjust to changing rhythms. It was her insistence on remaining contemporary.

Maybe you think the ’80s boom-thwap of producer Narada Michael Walden on hits like “Freeway of Love” was beneath her; the queen gives not the faintest echo of a fuck. She might have recreated her ’60s arrangements in her dotage, or, as longtime producer Jerry Wexler hoped his whole life, recorded an album of standards. But whether backed by the Muscle Shoals sessioneers on her soul debutante classic I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You in 1967 or assaying hip-hop with Lauryn Hill and Puffy Combs on her 1998 comeback A Rose Is Still a Rose or testifying on Amazing Grace in 1972, Franklin kept moving forward for a simple reason: because she could.

Amazing Grace arrived in theaters in time for Easter, which, coincidentally, was also around the time Netflix premiered Homecoming, the concert film of Beyoncé’s triumphant 2018 Coachella performances. And so, side by side, we get to watch two great artists using their fame to carve out spaces for African-American culture to thrive. Arriving much later on the scene, Beyoncé has to be more transparent in spelling out what she does. She doesn’t have the readymade intimacy of the church to retreat to; instead Beychella invented a postmodern black tradition in the desert out of the trappings of the Historical Black Colleges and Universities: marching bands, Greek life signifiers, stepping, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Frankie Beverly and Maze.

Where Aretha is opaque, Beyoncé cannily deploys autobiography in the service of her art: Destiny’s Child reunites; Bey performs an adorable routine with her sister Solange; Jay-Z appears after getting his ass repeatedly dragged by the woman-scorned tracks from Lemonade. And spliced between the performance footage are backstage scenes that stress the work that goes into a Beyoncé concert and her control over the affair. The more she reveals, the more unknowable she becomes, just as the spectacle allows her to belong to something larger than herself, but also makes herself larger than the show.

Even a dense white viewer (OK, maybe not the absolute densest) can’t help but watch Amazing Grace or Homecoming without a demand that if you love the artist, you must respect the world she comes from. But that’s hardly either singer’s primary message. Yes, each performance is a way of reclaiming pop from the marketplace, where race becomes a commodity for any artist to appropriate, by reconstituting traditions within a context too full to be plundered by white opportunists. But both Homecoming and Amazing Grace exist to represent black worlds to black audiences. What’s remarkable about both is that Beyoncé and Aretha don’t shun the white gaze; they just treat it as incidental, or even insignificant. Because they can.