Alan Elliott and Tirrell D. Whittley Interview: ‘Amazing Grace’ producers
A bit of a miracle has crashed this awards season, one that has been 46 years in the making, after managing to qualify for an Oscar run with just minutes to spare in October. “Amazing Grace” is an infamous documentary that is a companion to Aretha Franklin’s same-titled, biggest-selling album – a Grammy winner with more than 2 million copies sold — that was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles over two days in January 1972. The film, directed by Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa,” “Tootsie”), was kept in a vault by Warner Bros. when sound syncing problems prevented its release. But even when those flaws were erased thanks to digital technology,the Queen of Soul herself refused to allow the doc to see the light of day.
That is, until now. Producer Alan Elliott, who bought the rights to the footage that captures the then-29-year-old performer wailing the gospel music of her youth with a full choir, made a deal with Franklin’s survivors after her death in August to finally allow “Amazing Grace” to be shown in theaters to the public. It will have a brief run in New York’s Film Forum from December 7 to 13 before opening nationwide next year.
Elliott, a staff producer at Atlantic Records with the legendary Jerry Wexler — who oversaw the “Amazing Grace” album — began pursuing the rights to the footage in 1990. It wasn’t until Pollack died in 2008 that he was able to use 21st -century digital magic to piece together the footage. The result is rough and raw at times but incredibly rousing, capturing Lady Soul in all her youthful glory surrounded by friends and family. Oddly enough, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones were witnesses to the once-in-a-lifetime event. Just the array of Afro hairstyles and early ’70s fashions that parade by on screen is a trip back in time well worth taking.
Joining Elliott on this journey is fellow producer Tirrell D. Whittley, a marketing whiz who joined the effort around 2012. After seeing the film, he realized, “This is a very special project.” One that would be of interest to a wide range of people, “whether the faith audience, the music lovers … folks who have a love for Aretha Franklin. With this church service over two nights, you see this aspect of Aretha Franklin that many have never seen before. A person singing gospel and really letting herself go.”
The film was originally supposed to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2015, but Franklin stepped in and blocked the showing. What were her objections? Says Elliott, “We’ll never know. I never got to have a conversation with her about it. She said she loves the movie. That was the only quote that has ever been – they asked her at the Detroit News Press how she liked the movie. Sabrina Owens, who is her niece and the executor of her estate, said to us, ‘That’s just how she was.’ ” Watch and listen to Elliott and Whittley reveal more in this exclusive interview.