Why Aretha Franklin is blocking a documentary 4 decades in the making

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Aretha Franklin Stops Screening of Documentary at Telluride Festival

If your record collection happens to contain an original vinyl copy of Aretha Franklin's landmark 1972 live album Amazing Grace -; at double-platinum status, still her biggest seller, as well as the top-selling traditional gospel LP in history -; take a look at the liner notes. There's a sentence in the credits promising an accompanying "Sydney" Pollack movie would soon be on the way.

Just 43 years behind schedule, the movie is ready to screen but Franklin, 73, sued Friday to try to stop it. Amazing Grace, an 87-minute documentary pulled together from footage the late Sydney Pollack shot of Franklin while she recorded her historic album in front of a congregation at a church in Watts, is scheduled to screen at both Friday's Telluride and next week's Toronto film festivals. The Telluride festival director said Friday that the screening will go on. Toronto is less clear. It's something Franklin has succeeded in doing before -; with a 2011 suit -; but circumstances have changed since then and it's unclear now if her legal argument will still hold up.

Squabbles like this one are only part of the reason the film has sat in a Warner Bros. vault for the better part of a half-century. The bigger reason was that, back in 1972, Pollack screwed up. The then-38-year-old hotshot coming off his first Oscar nomination (for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), neglected to bring along sound-syncing clapper boards to the church, and ended up accidentally shooting the world's first silent rock doc.

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Why Aretha Franklin is blocking a documentary 4 decades in the making
This image provided by RCA Records shows the cover for Aretha Franklin's new CD of diva classics due to be released Oct. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/RCA Records)
THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW -- Aired 5/4/69 -- Pictured: Aretha Franklin (Photo by Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW -- Aired 5/4/69 -- Pictured: Aretha Franklin (Photo by Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 1: Musicians Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Aretha Franklin attending 17th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1975 at the Uris Theater in New York City, New York. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW -- Aired 5/4/69 -- Pictured: Aretha Franklin (Photo by Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1967: The 'Queen of Soul' Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait with circa 1967. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1965: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - CIRCA 1964: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait circa 1964 in New York city, New York. (Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Aretha FRANKLIN; Posed portrait of Aretha Franklin, (Photo by RB/Redferns)
AUGUST 7: Soul singer Aretha Franklin records in the studio on August 7, 1968. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: HAMMERSMITH ODEON Photo of Aretha FRANKLIN, performing live onstage. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
American soul singer Aretha Franklin dancing for the cameras. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1968: Soul singer Aretha Franklin performs onstage in circa 1968. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JANUARY 09: Soul singer Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio in during 'The Weight' recording sesssion on January 9, 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1969: Soul singer Aretha Franklin performs onstage in circa 1969. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin performs on BBC TV show 'It's Lulu', London, August 1970. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: TOP OF THE POPS Photo of Aretha FRANKLIN (Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns)
NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 1: Musicians Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers and singer Aretha Franklin attend 17th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1975 at the Uris Theater in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 1: (L-R) Musicians Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Aretha Franklin attending 17th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1975 at the Uris Theater in New York City, New York. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
CIRCA 1973: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait lying on a couch in circa 1973. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin poses for a studio portrait in 1977 in the United States. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)
Singer Aretha Franklin performing. (Photo by David Mcgough/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 01: Aretha Franklin (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 01: Aretha Franklin (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin during The 40th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Arista Records Pre-GRAMMY Party at Beverly Hills Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige performing on the 'VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin' at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, 4/9/01. The show airs live on VH1 on Tuesday, April 11, 2001 at 9:00PM EST. Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect.
FILE - In a Thursday, May 29, 2014 file photo, singer Aretha Franklin looks up while seated on stage during Harvard University commencement ceremonies, in Cambridge, Mass., where she was presented with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree. Franklin has some harsh words for a New York server at a at a Johnny Rockets restaurant in Lewiston near Buffalo who told the Queen of Soul she wasn’t allowed to eat her takeout inside the restaurant. A spokesman for Franklin says on Tuesday, July 22, Franklin ordered a hamburger after performing a sold-out show. But he says the server screamed at Franklin, saying she couldn’t sit down to eat because she had ordered takeout. A Johnny Rockets spokeswoman says the franchise owner is sorry for the actions of “a new and very young employee.” (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
Aretha Franklin waves to graduates at a New York University graduation ceremony Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Singer Aretha Franklin, left, is presented with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree by Vice President and Secretary of Harvard University Marc Goodheart, right, during Harvard commencement ceremonies, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Aretha Franklin and her son Kecalf Cunningham attend her 72nd birthday celebration on Sunday, March 23, 2014 in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2013 file photo, entertainer Aretha Franklin sings at the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony across from the White House in Washington. The legendary singer Franklin and Motown founder Berry Gordy will be honored at the 2014 BET Honors. The network announced Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, that rapper-actor Ice Cube, American Express CEO Ken Chenault and photographer and video artist Carrie Mae Weems will also receive tributes at the event. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Singer Aretha Franklin performs at the Fashion Group International's 30th annual "Night Of Stars" awards gala at Cipriani's Wall Street on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Aretha Franklin performs during McDonald's Gospelfest 2013 at the Prudential Center on Saturday, May 11, 2013 in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Singer Aretha Franklin arrives at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors Performance and Gala Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
FILE - This July 25, 2012 file photo shows Aretha Franklin performing at the NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles. Franklin has been inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame along with country and bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs, singer-songwriter Dallas Holm, family group The Hoppers, the late televangelist Rex Humbard and Christian rockers Love Song. Franklin couldn't attend the induction at Trinity Music City in Hendersonville, Tenn., but sent a video message played during the ceremony. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, file)
Aretha Franklin performs at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans on Sunday, July 8, 2012. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber/Invision/AP)
Record producer Clive Davis and singer Aretha Franklin attend the Revlon Concert for the Rainforest Fund dinner and auction at The Pierre Hotel on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
Aretha Franklin attends her seventieth birthday party in New York, Saturday, March 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08: Aretha Franklin performs onstage at BET Honors 2014 at Warner Theatre on February 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/BET/Getty Images for BET)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08: Aretha Franklin performs onstage at BET Honors 2014 at Warner Theatre on February 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/BET/Getty Images for BET)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08: Aretha Franklin speaks onstage at BET Honors 2014 at Warner Theatre on February 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/BET/Getty Images for BET)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08: Singer Aretha Franklin attends BET Honors 2014 at Warner Theatre on February 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paras Griffin/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08: (L-R) Angelika Beene, singer Aretha Franklin, and pianist Robert Glasper attend the BET Honors 2014 red carpet presented by Lexus at Warner Theatre on February 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images for BET)
Aretha Franklin and William Wilkerson arrive to the TV Land Awards 10th Anniversary in New York, Saturday, April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Aretha Franklin performs before being honored during the TV Land Awards, Saturday, April 14, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Singer Aretha Franklin, center, arrives at a reception hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in honor of the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors recipients, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Aretha Franklin sings during a funeral service for the late famed boxing trainer Emanuel Steward at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 03: Singer Aretha Franklin performs in concert at ACL Live on September 3, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 14: Aretha Franklin performs at Radio City Music Hall on June 14, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: A view of atmosphere at Aretha Franklin's 72nd Birthday Celebration on March 22, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: (L-R) Music executive Clive Davis, William Wilkerson, singer Aretha Franklin and actor Denzel Washington attend Aretha Franklin's 72nd Birthday Celebration at the Ritz Carlton on March 22, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images)
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Nobody remembers who first came up with the idea of turning Franklin's Watts sessions into a movie, but the man in charge of making it happen was legendary rock producer Joy Boyd (Nick Drake, Pink Floyd), who in late 1970 had been hired by Warner Bros. Pictures to head its newly expanded music department. A recent merger had brought the film studio and Warner Bros. Records (which owned Atlantic Records, the label recording Franklin's gospel LP) under one corporate umbrella, and the company was looking for ways to sell movie tickets along with albums. "This was the dawn of synergy," Boyd, now 73, recalls in an interview.


It was also the golden age of rockumentaries. In 1970 alone, there'd been Woodstock, Gimme Shelter and Elvis: That's the Way It Is. Boyd had already started to assemble a team of established documentary cameramen for the Franklin film, but the then-head of Warner Bros. Pictures, Ted Ashley, had other ideas. "I got a call from Ted saying, 'Great news!' " recalls Boyd. "He'd had dinner the night before with Sydney Pollack, and Sydney was now going to film Aretha's movie. I said, 'Ted, has he ever shot live music before? It's kind of a specialized skill.' And he said, 'What are you talking about, Joe? It's Sydney Pollack!"

Pollack arrived at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Jan. 13, 1972, with a crew of film and sound engineers and five 16mm cameras. He began shooting as Franklin, with a choir behind her, belted out gospel tunes ranging from "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" to Marvin Gaye's "Wholly Holy." You can occasionally spot the young director, wearing '70s-style corduroy and Brillo pad-like sideburns, hand-gesturing to his crew as he zips around the parishioners assembled for the recording. Look carefully and you'll see, rocking out in the back of the church, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts (who, perhaps not coincidentally, were about to record Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones' most overtly gospel-influenced album). "I'd seen Aretha many times in concert," Jagger tells The Hollywood Reporter, "but this was the first time I'd seen her in a church. It was an exciting and unique occasion."

Pollack spent two days shooting Franklin in Watts. But as he discovered afterward, without clapper boards snapping shut at the beginning of each take to help synchronize sound and picture, the 20 hours of footage he had accumulated was all but worthless. "It was frustrating as hell," recalls William Steinkamp, Pollack's longtime editor. "[The footage was like a jigsaw puzzle. We had a team on it, and you'd work on it for a while and give up.'" The choir director from the Watts recordings was brought in to try to lip-read the reels, but after months of work, only about 150 minutes of footage had been matched with sound, none of it adding up to a complete, useable song. Deadlines passed as the Amazing Grace album came out in June 1972, selling millions with no synergy. In August, Warner Bros. officially wrote off and shelved the movie.

Pollack moved on to his next film, working with another diva, Barbra Streisand, on The Way We Were. And his Aretha film sat in cans gathering dust for decades, although he never gave up on the idea of someday reviving the movie. "Every seven or eight years or so," recalls Steinkamp, "I'd go, 'Hey, what happened to that Aretha Franklin stuff?' He'd go, 'Aw, goddam it, it's still there!' He'd sit in his office and look at these VHS tapes that didn't have any sound and kind of dream about it. It was something he always wanted to try to finish, but he'd get busy" -; with films like Tootsie and The Firm -; "and it'd get back-burnered again."

Enter producer Alan Elliott, who had been intrigued by the legend of the lost Aretha doc ever since he was an A&R staffer at Atlantic in the early 1990s. So intrigued that he broached the subject with his Atlantic boss, Jerry Wexler, who had co-produced the Amazing Grace album. Wexler and other mutual friends -; songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman -;helped arrange a meeting between Elliott and Pollack in 2007. For a year the two men exchanged calls about how to bring the Franklin feature back to life. Then Pollack's health took a turn for the worse. "I knew Sydney had terminal cancer," recalls Elliott. "So I called him and started to say, 'Look, I'm really sorry about you being sick.' He said, 'I'm not sick -; I'm f-;ing dying.' He had a way of getting right to the truth of the matter. He said, 'You know this [material] better than I do. So I'm going to go to Warner Bros. and make sure you get to finish this movie.'"

Elliot took his dying friend's words seriously; he was determined to finish Pollack's film. He even mortgaged his own home to purchase the negative from Warner Bros. (WME's Ari Emanuel, Elliott's one-time partner in an early, failed Internet venture, put in a good word for him with the studio). And finally, two years after Pollack's death in 2008, working with the digital detectives at the Deluxe film lab, who used computers to sift through the footage and audio recordings, Elliott succeeded in syncing the movie. There was an early screening in 2010, and a trailer was even cut, as Elliott planned for a 2011 release of Amazing Grace. Then, yet another snag: Franklin filed a lawsuit against Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission.

Franklin won't say what upsets her about the movie's release -; she declined to comment for this story, although she recently told The Detroit Free Press that she'd seen and "loves" the movie. But back then she had Elliot over a barrel. He'd been able to find the original 1972 release contracts for everyone except, puzzlingly, its star. He'd been forced to settle the suit, agreeing not to show the movie without Franklin's permission. But then last year Franklin's contract suddenly turned up at Warner Bros. The reason Elliott hadn't been able to locate it was because her paperwork had been signed in 1969, not 1972 -; and what she signed was a personal service contract for both the movie studio and record label that effectively gave them full rights to the material filmed in the Watts church (and now, Elliott believes, he's got the rights, as the film's new owner).

Two weeks ago, Franklin's then-lawyer, Arnold Reed, was making noises about filing a new suit to prevent the film from screening at Telluride and Toronto. "Once we make a decision [to litigate], Alan Elliott won't be able to show that film in his garage," the attorney told THR, arguing that releasing the film without her approval and compensation constitutes "an act of thievery." As of yesterday, though, Franklin appears to have a new firm representing her, Dykema Gossett in Detroit. And now Franklin has sought an emergency injunction in Colorado to stop the Telluride and Toronto screenings.

"I understand she's used to getting paid a lot of money to do promotion for a project like this," says Elliott, who continues to have faith that eventually Franklin will see the light. "But I hope at some point she will come around. I always want to do right by Aretha."

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Aretha Franklin Seeks Emergency Injunction to Stop 'Amazing Grace' at Telluride Film Festival
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