Amazing Grace: Director Alan Elliot on why his Aretha Franklin film will make you break the cinema rules

In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

Some 47 years later, the footage of those iconic sessions has made it to the silver screen - and director Alan Elliot says it's not be enjoyed in silence. 

Jumping on the chairs, hands in the air, yelling, screaming, singing? Surely not. 

"Yes, that's the point!" Elliot assures me. 

Unsullied by talking-head interviews, re-enactments or extra footage, Amazing Grace is 87 minutes of hair-raising, transcendental music history - and you best believe you'll be getting involved. 

You might risk a disapproving tut, or being blinded by an usher's torch, but once you become a part of the audience bearing witness to that spine-tingling voice, you'll see, it's only right. 

Elliot tells me the greatest screening of his long-awaited love letter to Franklin was back at that same church with 11 of the surviving members of the gospel choir that accompanied her nearly five decades earlier. 

"They're singing, yelling at each other, talking to each other, talking to their pastor," he says.

It's all part of the "black church experience," which Elliot calls the "kernel of the birth of popular music". 

Amazing Grace: Director Alan Elliot on why his Aretha Franklin film will make you break the cinema rules
Photo credit: StudioCanal

Certainly, the film's very existence seems to be worth unbridled celebration. 

Initially spearheaded by Oscar-winning film great Sydney Pollack, the 12-year slog to get the film made began after Pollack told Elliot: "I think you know the movie better than I do, and I think you should go and finish it".

Elliot was tasked with overcoming a cinematic screw-up of colossal proportions: the sessions had been filmed without the use of clapper boards, meaning the audio and the pictures were hopelessly, torturously unsynchronised. 

"People ask me, 'would you do it again?' Well, no. If you had told me 12 years ago that we'd have to spend this amount of time doing it, no!" he admits.  

Thankfully, Elliot perservered, spurred on by what he calls a "pre-destination" that began with his father bringing him home a version of Amazing Grace when he was eight years old. 

"I remember listening to it and knowing that it had some real effect on me in a very emotional way," Elliot says. 

"I just felt like I knew it.

"I often refer to the movie as a miracle, but not an accident. How it got there, and why it got there, I don't know. But this was supposed to happen." 

This belief went some way to helping Elliot cope with carrying so many weighty legacies on his shoulders: those of Pollack, Franklin, and the record itself, which went on to become the singer's biggest seller. 

Amazing Grace: Director Alan Elliot on why his Aretha Franklin film will make you break the cinema rules
Photo credit: StudioCanal

Determined to realise the film in as authentic a manner as possible, Elliot made some unorthodox decisions. 

"The great thing about making a movie that you pay for is that you can do whatever you want," he explained. 

For Elliot, that meant bucking the music documentary trend of "verse-chorus-verse-chorus, cut to talking head". 

Instead, movie-goers are invited to take a pew and become a part of those two epic evenings without any shortcuts. 

As audience members, we sit through the recording's technical difficulties, watch Franklin's father dab at her brow, wait as the choir members file in. Franklin herself hardly addresses us. Yet somehow, we've learned more about her than we were expecting by the end. 

"To me, these always felt like sacred texts, and needed to be treated accordingly," Elliot explains. 

"We shouldn't tell anybody anything. She doesn't tell us, so where would we have the temerity to tell her what she was thinking?" 

Despite the film rejecting tropes usually expected of music documentaries, critics have heralded Amazing Grace as one of the greatest examples of the genre ever made.

Elliot says his film is one that "explains a lot without explaining anything," and it's perhaps the inexplicable moments of both the film that make it what it is. 

Whether or not a defiant lack of explanation will fly with the usher when you inevitably throw your popcorn in the air in a fit of jubilation remains to be seen.

Amazing Grace is out in New Zealand cinemas now.