Saving Grace: The Death and Life of a Lost Aretha Franklin Concert Classic

Then came what Elliott calls “the craziness.” Franklin sued him to stop any screenings of the film. (Elliott and Franklin settled out of court). In 2015, she sued the Telluride Film Festival, where the film was set to have its premiere. She contended that the footage “was taken with the express understanding that it would not be used commercially without agreement and consent by Ms. Franklin.”

The judge sided with Franklin, despite an unearthed, decades-old contract Franklin had signed with Warner Bros. authorizing release of the film. According to Elliott, Robert De Niro called Franklin personally, offering to screen the film in the fabled Radio City Music Hall. Franklin reportedly told him, “Well, baby, it’s in the hands of the lawyers.”

- Advertisement -

Why, precisely, was Franklin so opposed to the release of the film? Her reasoning remains vague. Rainey said that he tried talking to her about the movie over the years, but she always changed the subject. In 2015, she told the Detroit Free Press, “I love the film itself. It’s just that, well, legally, I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems.”

Elliott has a theory. He speculates that Franklin may have responded as she did due to residual disappointment that the movie did not come out as originally planned—perhaps dashing her hopes of having a movie career. In 1972, he said, people at Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records told Franklin that she could be a movie star like Diana Ross, who had received an Oscar nomination for her performance that year’s Lady Sings the Blues. “In December of 1971,” Elliott said, “she came out to start rehearsals for Amazing Grace, but she also did a guest spot on [the TV series] Room 222. . . . You can see how great she is.”

It might also have been an issue of artistic control. “Quincy Jones told me stories that when he was with Aretha, they would finish a recording session and she would fly with the tapes to New York to do overdubs without him,” Elliott said. “I would imagine as close to perfect as I think the movie is, she wasn’t a participant in it [behind the scenes], and that’s probably an issue about which artists would be territorial.”

Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and the executor of her estate, thinks there might be something in that idea. “Aretha was a perfectionist,” she told Vanity Fair. “She liked to have input in all her projects and I don’t know how much she had in [the movie].”

Owens herself did not discuss the movie with Franklin. “I saw the film about three years ago, and I knew the world needed to see it,” she said. “At the time, she wasn’t feeling well. It wasn’t a conversation she was ready to have; she was more focused on her health.”

Whatever the reason, the film remained in limbo until Franklin’s death. “It was gut-wrenching,” Elliott said. “I knew how good it was.” His only contact with Franklin was a five-second encounter in 2008 at the House of Blues, where, as per arrangements by Wexler, he met her backstage following a concert. He identified himself, and Franklin said, “Yes, we’ll be talking”—then walked away.

Shortly thereafter, he became friends with Owens. She informed Elliott confidentially that Franklin was seriously ill. “Sabrina and I agreed that I wasn’t going to do anything after that,” he said. “We would just talk to each other every couple of months. . . . I knew at a certain point, we would get the movie out.”


- Advertisement -