It has come to my attention that we are in the month of May. I could’ve sworn we had just started the month of April a week ago, but okay…….
What’s on the agenda for me in May, you ask? You asked, right? I swear I just heard you ask.
Well, since you asked, I am putting myself on a self-imposed media cleanse for the month. The only recorded media I am allowing myself are films and music. That means no TV, no YouTube, no podcasts, no video games (by which I really just mean the Sims). There’s a lot of clutter in my brain, and I’m hoping a little quiet will do it some good. That means we’ll be having a very film-heavy month here at HB/LB. We are a staff of one and our office is usually a couch and sometimes a toilet.
This week’s HIGHBROW recommendation comes with a bit of a caveat — the film itself is great, the story of its production is a little shady. I’ll explain.
Let me start with the good stuff. In January of 1972, in South Los Angeles, CA, a group of people gathered in a small Baptist church to watch a miracle unfold. For two whole days, the one and only Aretha Franklin recorded a gospel album in front of a live audience. Accompanied by the Southern Los Angeles Community Choir, Ms. Franklin sang gospel’s greatest hits with commitment, fervor, mastery, and lots and lots of sweat. She did what I can only describe as “channeling God.”
The two days of recording and one day of rehearsal were documented by director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa), on assignment from Warner Bros. And do you know what this stupid bitch* — may he rest in peace — did?
He. Never. Slated. His. Motherfucking. Film.
Now, if you’ve never spent hours in a pitch-black closet-sized room, hunched over an old Steenbeck, your fingers completely shredded by a too-dull film splicer, the concept of not slating your film might seem completely innocuous.
Usually, you see people slating films using clapboards (🎬). That’s because, on film shoots, sound and image are recorded separately, and editors need a reference point to help them sync the two. This is especially true when shooting on physical, tangible, film. If you’ve slated, editors know to match the sound of the *CLAP* to the image of the clapboard. And if you haven’t slated, you’re extremely fucked.
Let me put it this way: imagine you have to put together two 1000-piece puzzles. Each has a unique set of pieces that add up to fairly similar but slightly different images. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say one is a solid navy blue and the other is a solid midnight blue. Now let’s say I take these two puzzles, put all the pieces in one box, and shake it up real good. Putting those two puzzles together would probably be a little easier than attempting to sync a film without any slates.
So Sydney Pollack and his team (which, by the looks of it, included at LEAST three camera people — that’s three cameras worth of film to sync) record the miracle that is Ms. Franklin at the peak of her instrument and deliver unto their editor an absolute nightmare.
The film sits in the Warner Bros. vault for years, untouched. Before Pollack passes away in 2008, he hands the film off to Alan Elliot, another film producer. Elliot manages to sync the film and cut it together. It is now 2011 and this long-awaited film is finally ready for release. Then, Ms. Franklin, fully within her rights, shuts it down. She doesn't want her likeness used without her permission, end of story. Elliot tries to release the film again in 2015. Robert De Niro personally calls up Ms. Franklin to see if she’ll let him screen the film at his Tribeca film festival. Still no.
Then, in August of 2018, Ms. Franklin passes. Her homegoing is the television event of the decade. Who else could bring every single great living Black-American entertainer, and Ariana Grande, under one roof? The world mourns and celebrates her legacy.
This is where it starts to get a little shady.
A few months after her passing, her estate gives the producers what they’ve waited a decade for: permission to release the film. The thought that Ms. Franklin went to her grave insisting the footage stay private, and then, not even a full year after her passing, the film is set for international distribution, does not sit well with me. I’m sure her estate has her best interest at heart. But I’m not sure sure. I really don’t know what to make of it all.
The other part of this that feels less-than-ethical is that one of the film’s producers, Chiemi Karasawa, is now suing Alan Elliot, the guy who bought the film rights from Sydney Pollack, for failing to pay her for her years of work. According to her and the various people who touched the film, Karasawa was instrumental to the production. She retrieved the footage, processed it, oversaw the editing, set up key screenings for industry professionals. For the sake of our legal department (which is also just me on the toilet), I will say ALLEGEDLY, ALLEGEDLY, ALLEGEDLY a white man did not pay a woman of color on a film centering a woman of color. Seems bad to me. Allegedly.
It’s a shame that this film is covered in ick because it’s truly a sight to behold. It’s a straightforward documentation of an artist at work, the community rallying behind her, and the divine power of her Gift. With the criminally brief runtime of 87 minutes, Amazing Grace is nothing short of a religious experience. You will revel in the glory of Aretha Franklin, and envy the congregants who got to cheer, dance, jump, and shriek in her presence. And if you are the daughter of a Black Christian man, it will hit an especially sensitive nerve and you will weep into the dirty, crumpled tissue you forgot lived at the bottom of your backpack.
Amazing Grace is in some theaters already, and will probably be coming to more screens in the near future. If it’s in your city, make plans to go see it ASAP.
Okay, I was not expecting to go in on that HIGHBROW to the degree that I did. I was just too moved by the film and too appalled by the story of its production and release. I was going to recommend another doc about an eating disorder clinic, but judging by the room it seems like you might want something a little… lighter?
Okay, I will talk about K-Pop again!
I’ll keep it short and just say, go listen to DALLA, DALLA by newcomers ITZY.
The group debuted only three months ago and landed on the scene with a banger of a single. It is pure syrupy, catchy, pop-y fun. It’s also stacked with such resonant lyrics as, “Bad, bad, I’m sorry I’m bad/I’m just the way I am.”
And in classic K-Pop fashion, all five members are gorgeous and under the age of 20. Very cool.
OOOOOooookaaaay that’s all she wrote, folks! See you next Thursday.
*I use the phrase “stupid bitch” as a term of endearment. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mr. Pollack. In fact, the first thing I do every morning is look at myself in the mirror and call myself a stupid bitch as an act of radical self-love.