Go see it.
If this movie is somewhere nearby you, don’t read this, just go see it yourself. That’s my first advice.
If you can’t, it’ll be on Amazon or Netflix or something eventually but I doubt it’ll be the same. I think you need to be in a big room with a big sound system, even if nobody is dancing in front of you (shameful and unthinkable as that would be).
This movie puts the lie to every concert film and maybe every concert produced since. The cameras roam, they’re still searching for focus in big moments. Big moments come without warning, without a lead-in or introduction. There’s no contrived big ending number. Mick Jagger’s in the audience and, really, who cares?
Some of the most exciting stuff comes early on. Songs end and then swell up again because Aretha or the Reverend James Cleveland or the choir don’t feel like letting go just yet. There are moments where you can see the musicians searching for the timing and the key change, when exactly to make the change, feeling for where the other musicians are going to be in the next split second.
One of my favorite shots is when one of the cameramen wheels around and you see Sydney Pollack frantically pointing to him to get the audience, which is going fucking crazy. And so are you in your plush theater seat, which feels like it needs better springs because it’s not used to the patrons bouncing up and down quite so much.
It feels real. It feels like music ruling, not the camera, not the theatrical exploitation, not the money. Just the music. And the fact that that feels like so long ago is really sad.
The other thing I realized, watching this film, is about America – that the thing that made people around the world feel sympathetic to America, even when we weren’t always acting in their (or our) best interest, was that America has always been about the struggle for liberation of the people who came here.
America’s charm – at least to the white people who chose to come here – was that, in America, you could seek to become something new. Like my maternal grandfather who escaped the pogroms and the Russian draft and the paternal one who escaped working in the Scottish mines (to come work in the Illinois mines but get his kid into college).
And in this film, in Aretha and Reverend Cleveland and that choir, I saw reason to believe that that struggle was even more powerful to people who didn’t choose, who were dragged here against their will and somehow managed to make something beautiful and powerful and defiant out of that pain.
Which is why this film feels so resonant today. In our petty politics now, either you buy our President’s message, that America is about being the big bully, the guy with the big muscles and the big bank account and if you get in our way, we’ll squash you – or, if you don’t buy it, you struggle to figure out what the other message, the alternative, is.
And I think, here it is, in this film. America is that place where you struggle to become what you want to be. Nobody can guarantee you’ll succeed. The struggle itself is the point, the beauty and power and dignity. That attempt to improve – our individual selves and our collective society – lies at the heart of American identity. Uniquely among nations, America is not so much about who we are as who we are trying to become.
When you look at it like that, you see how petty and small Trump and his like are. They offer nothing worth wanting. The good fight is the fight for the opportunity to keep struggling, to try to keep making something better, instead of doubling down on the worst of what we already are.
Aretha and the Reverend Cleveland and Sydney Pollack – all of them gone now – send us a different message. I recommend it highly.
I once was blind but now I see. Go and do likewise.