“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” is the theme of this week’s AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington, where some 70 documentaries will be shown in theatres across the city over five days. To get myself in shape, I spent Sunday and Monday watching two documentaries that are not part of the festival but are currently playing in the area. One tried — and only partially succeeded — in reaching the standards suggested by the theme. The other is a masterpiece simply because it captures a treasure at the height of her powers. As one reviewer phrased it, “She blew the doors off the joint.”
But let’s start with the less-satisfying of the two.
Echo in the Canyon, currently playing at the E Street Cinema, is a documentary about the legendary Laurel Canyon music scene in Los Angeles from the mid-1960s. The film focuses on the music of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and The Mamas and the Papas, and the hook is a 2015 tribute concert from current-day fans Jakob Dylan (Bob’s son), Fiona Apple, Beck, and others. As Dylan says to kick off the concert, “Are you ready to go back to the 60s?”
Well, much like the decade (and yes, I was there for some of it), the film has its ups and downs. The music at the time was exciting and I agree that these four bands all played influential roles. But the telling of the story here is somewhat confused, and there’s too much of Dylan and his friends talking earnestly about the staying power of the music.
Here’s what I liked:
- Michelle Phillips, who was insightful and funny from the time she first came on screen. I loved the comment “If The Byrds can have a hit, anybody can have a hit,” a sentiment which sent The Mamas and The Papas from New York to LA.
- Watching Stephen Stills and Eric Clapton record a new guitar solo while on different continents (even in Stills’ reduced capacity as a musician these days).
- Nora Jones. My God, when she sang a duet of The Association‘s Never My Love with Jakob Dylan, it was clear that she was the most talented of the newcomers to this music, by a factor of about 10.
- Simply being reminded of some great tunes and hearing about the cross-pollination of sounds and music.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
- Where was Joni Mitchell? How can you do a movie on Laurel Canyon and the California sound and have the only mention of Mitchell being Stephen Stills briefly talking about when they dated.
- Jakob Dylan’s interviewing style. Several times the camera lingers after a comment, just to show you how cool he is.
- The fact that there is no reference to why this period ended. I kept waiting to hear about the Monterey Pop Festival and how much of the attention shifted in 1967 to San Francisco and the Summer of Love, or — more definitively — the Manson murders and the fear that spread throughout the area in 1969. But nothing. Just “puff” and it was over.
- It was never clear if the movie was making the point that there was a “Laurel Canyon sound” or whether just a bunch of musicians happened to live in close proximity to each other.
So while Echo In the Canyon was enjoyable, it could have been much more.
On the other hand, Amazing Grace, the movie of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 recording of the gospel album of the same name, is — like the lady herself — a national treasure. Currently showing at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, this is a 90-minute church service.
In 1972, Franklin was at the top of her game, with 11 number one singles and five Grammy awards. It was at that time that she decided to return to her roots — the black Baptist church — and record a gospel album. And she literally returned to church, Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, for a live recording over two evenings of the songs she grew up singing. This movie, a long-lost documentary that went through technical and legal challenges, captures the recording sessions.
Where to start? Well, probably with that voice. There has never been another singer like Aretha Franklin. If you don’t believe me, just watch her command the stage with all the other divas of her day in the remarkable performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. That voice is everywhere in Amazing Grace. Franklin barely speaks ten words during the movie, but she opens her mouth and that sound comes out.
Did I mention that the album was the best selling record of her career, as well as the best-selling gospel album of all time? There’s a reason for that.
The Reverend James Cleveland, who was a gospel legend himself, serves as part master of ceremonies and part preacher. He could have tried to steal the show, but probably knew — in his heart — that it wasn’t really possible. In his introduction, he notes that Aretha could “Sing anything . . . even Three Blind Mice.” Here he plays solid back-up to the Queen. When her whole being goes into another world during the song Amazing Grace, however, Cleveland is literally overcome. He gets up from his piano to sob into a towel. It is an arresting, emotional moment.
The Southern California Community Choir, under the energetic direction of Alexander Hamilton, makes it all look so effortless while sporting some great Afros from the 1970s. The small church is partially filled on the first night. However, by night number two the word has clearly gotten around, as the camera finds gospel legend Clara Ward; Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin; and none other than Mick Jagger in the audience . . . all going to church as Franklin testifies on song-after-song.
Odie Henderson wrote a terrific movie review from the point of view of a former choir member in the African American church. In it, he captures one special moment just after Aretha’s father finished speaking:
“Rev. Franklin’s words are followed by his daughter singing the first song she ever recorded, Never Grow Old, or, as we kids used to call it in church, ‘the song where they have to start dragging people out of here.’ My viewing partner, Steven Boone, and I exchanged a knowing glance just before the congregation erupted with people catching the Holy Ghost and needing to be restrained. Meanwhile, Re’s singing and her piano playing blew the doors off the joint, creating a moment of transcendence I’ve never experienced in a theater before.”
The whole movie is a powerful spiritual moment — no matter what you believe. Get yourself to a theatre and see it, if at all possible.
And now, after going to church, I’m ready for a week-long documentary festival!
More to come…