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Acclaimed doc about 'Queen of Soul' Aretha Franklin mired in legal fight

Stacy Perman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When “Amazing Grace,” the long-awaited documentary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel performance premiered to sold-out audiences in November 2018, first in New York and then Los Angeles, the reception was euphoric.

NPR hailed the film as “transcendent,” calling it “nothing short of a revelation.”

While the L.A. Times rhapsodized that it was “a captivating artifact, the rare making-of documentary that doesn’t just comment on but completely merges with its subject.”

At the time of the concert, Franklin was at the pinnacle of her fame and power, with 20 albums and five Grammys under her belt. The two-night sessions marked a return to her gospel roots. Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Franklin was backed by the Southern California Community Choir. Gospel icon the Rev. James Cleveland presided.

The sessions produced a live album, the double-platinum “Amazing Grace,” and earned Franklin a Grammy for gospel soul performance.

But the footage, directed by Sydney Pollack, languished in a vault unfinished and unseen for nearly 50 years.

 

When it was finally released, the documentary’s prospects for box office success and awards triumph seemed assured. But it garnered only a limited theatrical run before ending up on Hulu in 2019 and was largely absent from major award season consideration.

What happened to the film is now the subject of a legal dispute. On Wednesday, the Amazing Grace Movie LLC (of which producer Alan Elliott is the principal) sued its distributor Neon, the independent powerhouse behind Academy Award-winning films “Parasite” and “I, Tonya,” in the Supreme Court of the state of New York in New York County, accusing the indie distributor of a host of practices that hamstrung the potential success of the documentary.

The suit highlights the complexities of producing the life stories of real people and is the latest legal twist in the long-tortured history of “Amazing Grace’s” journey to the silver screen.

According to the suit, a month after the documentary’s premiere, Neon “fraudulently induced” Elliott to accept a distribution deal. Elliott had been “actively shopping” the film to potential partners, when Neon announced publicly it had acquired the North American distribution rights to “Amazing Grace” — before a deal was reached.

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