Tony Earnshaw: Legal tussles over cinematic treasure we may never see

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The saga of Amazing Grace involves very little grace, as it turns out. In fact the 43-year saga is one of confusion, mistakes, lawyers’ letters and much scrabbling in the vaults.

And at the heart of it all is, legend has it, a phenomenal performance from soul star Aretha Franklin in a film that documents the recording of one of her greatest triumphs: the 1972 performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles that became Amazing Grace, an iconic live album of gospel music. The film, which was only recently completed, was withdrawn from the recent Chicago Film Festival and forcibly pulled from festivals in Telluride and Toronto by the legal team acting on behalf of the 73-year-old singer. A judge found in her favour.

The crux of the problem appears to be a contract that Franklin may or may not have signed all those years ago. She claims she did not agree to footage being used for commercial gain. Those acting on behalf of the filmmakers claim she did.

The film that was to become Amazing Grace was shot by Sidney Pollack, who would later become famous as the director of The Way We Were, Tootsie and Out of Africa.

It was designed to capture all aspects of Franklin’s performance and is said to show intriguing behind-the-scenes action of the singer at her zenith, as well as documenting the concert itself.

But there were problems with the sound. Those familiar with the film noted that it was impossible to synchronise sound and images, resulting in editors struggling for years to piece together a coherent film. And when Sydney Pollack died in 2008 following years of to-ing and fro-ing over the footage it was left to others to try and rescue the project, which over the decades had taken on mythic status amongst fans.

As far as Aretha Franklin is concerned the passage of time does not mean she will give up her rights to the content. Her claim is that by allowing the film to be screened publicly her contractual rights, intellectual property rights and her rights to use and control her name and likeness will be infringed. Moreover it is an invasion of privacy. Some within the dual industries of movies and music claim Franklin has seen and likes the film. Yet the stand-off continues.

A spokesman for the Toronto Film Festival described the film as “an extraordinary piece of art” adding, “the footage in the film is truly a cinematic treasure of 20th century music and we hope global audiences will have 
the opportunity to experience this film once a resolution is found.” There seems little chance of that. Franklin 
is sticking to her guns: commercial rights were not agreed in 1972 and in 2015 nothing has changed.

Somebody, somewhere needs to mediate. But potentially millions of dollars are at stake. And there’s no Grace in hard business.