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Amazing Grace: Aretha Franklin doc is still fighting to get in front of an audience

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In 1972, an up-and-coming director with an Oscar nomination to his name spent two nights filming Aretha Franklin recording her live gospel album Amazing Grace inside a Los Angeles church. The director was Sydney Pollack, and though the album would go double platinum, his film has yet to see the light of day some 43 years later. That was all supposed to change in September with a high-profile screening at the Telluride Film Festival, but a federal judge, acting at Franklin’s request, derailed that plan, and producer Alan Elliott also withdrew the movie from the Toronto International Film Festival.

But the latest round of legal wrangling finally might have put the warring parties on the path to resolution. Elliott agreed on Sept. 15 not to screen Amazing Grace for 30 days, during which time he and Franklin will attempt to settle their years-long dispute. (Franklin, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has not discussed what objections she has other than legal ones. In August, she told the Detroit Free Press, “I love the film itself.”)

A composer and former record producer, Elliott became the film’s shepherd almost eight years ago, after dusting off the long-shelved project with an ailing Pollack. The director, who died in 2008, hadn’t initially been able to complete the concert documentary because most of the 20 hours of footage and sound couldn’t be synchronized. But Elliott found a postproduction house to handle the task, mortgaged his home to pay for the film, and pushed it through to completion.

In 2011, Franklin sued Elliott for using her name and likeness without her consent. (The lawsuit was settled out of court.) He’s since obtained a contract signed by Warner Bros., Atlantic Records, and Franklin in 1968 that he believes covers the film. For his part, Elliott chiefly wants audiences to be able to enjoy a classic chronicle of a vital artist. “It would be this horrible loss to our culture to not have this out into the world,” he says. “It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than Sydney, it’s bigger than Aretha…. It’s everybody.”

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