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Sundance winner and a musical treasure reviewed

The late Aretha Franklin is shown in a scene from “Amazing Grace,” a recently released film that documents the 1972 recordings for Franklin’s gospel music album of the same name. The album became the multi-Grammy winner’s best selling album of all time. (Photo courtesy of Neon)

The films this month include a great Sundance Award winner and a long-lost musical treasure.

 

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

Joe Talbot won the best director at Sundance for the film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which also won a Special Jury award; the film is based on the experiences of his best friend, Jimmie Fails, who plays a character in the film named Jimmie Fails. Joe Talbot is white; Jimmie and his best friend in the movie, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), are black. Much of the film takes place in the Fillmore district, which is now an upscale white neighborhood where old houses sell for $4 million; before that, Fillmore was the Harlem of San Francisco, and Jimmie and his family lived there. Before that, before the Japanese were put in concentration camps during World War II, it was an asian neighborhood (Jimmie believes that his father acquired the house because the Japanese were forcibly evicted). Talbot does not belabor this history; it is just there, lapping at the edges of the story, like the polluted waters that lap at Bayview-Hunters Point, where the Navy used to decontaminate ships that had been involved in nuclear tests.
The story of Jimmie and Mont opens with them waiting for a bus, but they decide to use Jimmie’s skateboard instead, and their story drifts in like the mist that shrouds the Golden Gate Bridge. Jimmie works part-time at an elder-care facility, keeps in marginal contact with his dad (Rob Morgan), who is close to being homeless, and runs into his mother one morning on a bus–they have obviously not seen each other in quite some time, despite their stated best intentions. Mont lives with his father in a crowded older house in Hunter’s Point, and Jimmie currently sleeps on a pad beside Mont’s bed. Mont’s father (excellently portrayed by Danny Glover) is blind, and the boys care for him. In an early scene they are watching a San Francisco film on TV, D. O. A., and Mont describes the action to his father, who is completely caught up in the events he cannot see. Mont and Jimmie’s friendship is relaxed, uncompetitive, not like the boys from the hood that they run into virtually everyday and who harass them with macho posturing. Mont is a budding playwright, keeping notes and sketches in a red composition book for a play with the same title as the movie. The local gang in his neighborhood sometimes seem to function as a Greek chorus as they comment, usually in profane language, about what’s going on (“nigga” replaces the four-letter F-word for most common verbal punctuation); Mont sometimes addresses them with references to Greek tragedy.
Jimmie’s infatuation with the elaborate house in Filmore that his father used to live in through “squatters’ rights” is really the backbone of the story; it’s about the bond between a young man and a home, and Jimmie’s love of the house is like adolescent love–intense but often not very clear-headed. A middle-aged white couple has occupied the house for several years, but Jimmie keeps his hand in, sneaking to the house to make repairs while the owners throw croissants at him and warn him away. When a death among the owners leaves the house vacant, Jimmie and Mont move in, hoping to find some way to acquire the house and to go home again. But San Francisco has changed.
This house, with its witch’s hat cupola and its gingerbread trim, dominates the picture. Its polished floors, elaborate chandeliers, exquisite woodwork, and, yes, even a functioning pipe organ, all explain Jimmie’s infatuation, especially since he thinks his grandfather built it in 1946. When the boys first find the house has been emptied, they race through it, shouting and screaming, from its entry hall to its attic, in which they create a theatre.
The film is full of memorable scenes. A young black girl stands watching a team of men in green contamination uniforms monitor the polluted water before she wanders off. A local preacher comes out every day, puts down a box, and harangues the city for contaminating the water. As Jimmy waits for a bus, a totally nude elderly man walks up, puts a napkin down on the bus-stop seat, puts his bare behind on the napkin and begins a conversation. Even the permanence of property is called into question when a rent-controlled apartment house burns down, and a passerby mutters, “You never really own sh—.” A scene near the end shows Jimmie rowing across the bay during a storm in a scene that may echo the end of The Great Gatsby, another story about illusions and finding home and identify.
Finding a haven for the self, mending family fractures, dealing with gentrification, facing the illusions that people create for themselves, coping with a city that is slowly but constantly changing, and trying, through all of this, to figure out who you are, especially if you’re a young black man–these are some of the themes of this film but they are handled delicately. The carefully photographed architecture, the histories of the characters and the settings, the adjacent stories that slide by almost before you’re aware of them–all work together to make this one of the most carefully wrought and meaningful films of the year.

AMAZING GRACE

In 1972 at the height of her powers, Aretha Franklin had produced eleven number-one singles and twenty albums, acquiring five Grammys along the way. In an attempt to renew herself and to pay tribute to her roots in gospel music, Franklin returned to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles. There, over a two-day period, she recorded gospel music backed by the Southern California Community Choir, and with the occasional input of her long-time friend, the Rev. James Cleveland, himself a Grammy winner. This performance, condensed to ninety minutes, was released as Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace; the double record became the most popular and best-selling gospel album of all time as well as the best-selling album of Franklin’s 50-year career.
What wasn’t widely known was that, when the concert was taped, it was also filmed under the direction of Sydney Pollack, but there were problems. The most serious was that the sound and picture were not in sync–one story says that Pollock forgot the clapper-boards to match the sound and film. Legal problems also were involved. No one could find the contract Franklin had signed until some years later, when it turned up in a search of the studio’s records for 1969 when the concert was first discussed. As a result, the film sat in cans in the vault at Warner Bros. for thirty-five years until it was undertaken as a project by producer Alan Elliott. New technology enabled Elliott to put the sound and picture into sync. Pollack’s death in 2008 removed one player from the stage, but red tape, squabbling lawyers and other blocks kept the film from the public for another eleven years. When Franklin’s contract for the concert was recovered, it turned out she had signed away most of her rights; when she realized this, she sued to block the film’s release but apparently lost the case. Only after her death was the film released. Today’s film version has sharp visuals and great sound, and it is an important addition to Franklin’s canon.
What is noteworthy about this film? First, Franklin herself. She is 29 and beautiful in her white gowns, purple eye shadow and white earrings. Her voice is at its prime, and seeing her project the power of that voice raises the experience a significant notch above just hearing it. Her emotional involvement with the music drives the choir to stand up and shout while tears and sweat streak her face. Seeing this film is as close as many people will ever come to seeing an evangelical black choir perform, and it’s a joyful sight to behold.
A high point occurs when Cleveland becomes so overwhelmed by Franklin’s performance of “Amazing Grace” that he collapses into a chair and sits weeping with his head in his hand. Perhaps the most touching scene occurs when the Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, walks over to where she sits at the piano, a diva in a flowing pale green silk dress, and gently wipes the sweat off her face with a towel. They never miss a beat.
If you like gospel or enjoy Aretha Franklin’s music, you’ll want to see this unique performance; even if you don’t know “gospel” from “Godspell,” check it out and broaden your music horizons. And yes, that is Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts lurking in the back of the church, although they never intrude into the concert.
(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org)

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