Doc about Aretha Franklin mired in legal fight

When “Amazing Grace,” the long-awaited documentary about Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel performance, premiered in November 2018 to a sold-out audience first in New York and then in Los Angeles, the reception was euphoric.

NPR praised the film as “transcendent” and called it “nothing short of a revelation”.

While The Times gushed that it was “a compelling artifact, the rare making-of documentary that not only comments on its subject matter, but completely melds it”.

At the time of the concert, Franklin was at the height of her fame and power with 20 albums and 5 Grammys. The two-day sessions marked a return to their gospel roots. Recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts; Franklin was supported by the Southern California Community Choir. Gospel icon presided over by Rev. James Cleveland.

The sessions spawned a live album, the double-platinum Amazing Grace, and earned Franklin a Grammy for his gospel-soul performance.

But the footage, directed by Sydney Pollack, sat unfinished and unseen in a vault for almost 50 years.

When it was finally released, the documentary’s prospects for box office success and awards seemed assured. But it only received a limited theatrical run before landing on Hulu in 2019, and went largely unnoticed in the big awards season.

What happened to the film is now the subject of litigation. On Wednesday, Amazing Grace Movie LLC (which is directed by Alan Elliott) sued its distributor Neon, the independent powerhouse behind the Oscar-winning films Parasite and I, Tonya, in the New York State Supreme Court in New York County , and accused the indie distributor of a variety of practices that crippled the documentary’s potential success.

Highlighting the complexities of producing real people’s life stories, the suit is the latest legal twist in the long-tortured tale of Amazing Grace’s journey to the big screen.

Elliott is currently involved in a legal battle - the latest in the Aretha Franklin documentary, "Amazing Grace".

Producer Alan Elliott is suing powerhouse distributor Neon over allegations that the company engaged in a variety of practices that hampered the potential success of Aretha Franklin’s documentary, Amazing Grace.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

According to the lawsuit, a month after the documentary premiered, Neon “fraudulently tricked Elliott” into accepting a distribution deal. Elliott had been “actively buying” the film from potential partners when Neon publicly announced it had acquired the North American distribution rights to “Amazing Grace” — before a deal was reached.

“Neon’s premature and false announcement immediately deterred bids from other distributors who were actively competing for a distribution deal,” the lawsuit states.

Tom Quinn and representatives from Neon could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lawsuit further alleges that Neon dragged Elliott into the deal “heavily armed” and Tom Quinn, Neon’s chief executive officer, “insisted on it.” [it] ‘backdated to reflect the date of the fraudulent press release.’”

In addition, the complaint alleges that Neon failed to deliver on its promise to release the film in 1,000 theaters nationwide, as well as to promote it with a focus on black communities and theaters.

“This was critical in persuading the plaintiff to ultimately enter into a domestic distribution deal with Neon as there is a long history of Hollywood underselling black films and the plaintiff did not want this phenomenon to affect the picture.” .”

“Neon kept the image out of the theaters and communities where its release would be most impactful, instead licensing the image to streamers like Hulu.”

The lawsuit also outlines allegations that Neon did little in the manner of marketing the film, “abandoned all efforts to promote the picture’s award ceremony,” and failed to properly account for the film’s earnings and requests for review.

According to IMDb, the film, which has been shown in 243 theaters in North America, has grossed $4.45 million in the US and Canada and $7.79 million worldwide. The film won the NAACP Image Award for Best Documentary and received multiple nominations, including from the London Critics Circle, the San Sebastián International Film Festival and the International Documentary Assn.

The lawsuit seeks a trial by jury and a minimum of $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

“This lawsuit is intended to defend the film and send a clear message to Neon that using independent filmmakers poses legal and reputational risks,” said Maurice Pessah, an attorney representing Amazing Grace Movie LLC.

The suit comes as Neon, which was founded in 2017 by former Magnolia Pictures executive Tom Quinn and Tim League, who founded the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, is reportedly exploring a sale. In addition to “Parasite”, which won six Oscars in 2020, including best picture, Neon has earned a reputation for making films successful contenders for major awards, such as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Spencer.”

The life and art of Aretha Franklin remains a cultural touchstone.

Two dueling Franklin biopics were released last year. The first, Genius: Aretha, a series starring Cynthia Erivo that aired on the National Geographic channel, drew criticism from the family. This was followed by the film Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson, who Franklin approved for the role before her death. The film features the recording of their influential live album, Amazing Grace, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.

“Amazing Grace” had a long and difficult road to the big screen, mired in lawsuits and blocked by none other than Franklin himself.

Pollack, who received an Oscar nomination for They Shoot Horses Don’t They? was selected by Warner Bros. to direct the film. But he failed to use a slate to synchronize the visual footage with the sound, making it nearly impossible to match the sound to the on-screen images. For decades, the raw footage gathered dust in a vault.

Elliott first heard about the lost film while working as an artist and repertoire manager at Atlantic Records in 1990. In 2007, he acquired the rights to the raw footage with “Pollack’s blessing and encouragement,” according to court filings. Pollack died in 2008.

Elliott comes from a show business family and is the son of prominent television and film composer Jack Elliott, who wrote the theme songs for numerous shows including Barney Miller and Charlie’s Angels. For years he was also the musical director of the Grammys.

The family befriended Benny Medina, now a well-known talent manager, who lived in St. Elmo Village, a community home in Los Angeles, and invited him to live with them in Beverly Hills. Medina’s life with the Elliotts helped inspire the 1990s Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

After solving the technical challenges of digitizing and synchronizing the footage, Elliott faced numerous hurdles preventing its release.

In 2011, Franklin sued Elliott and refused to show “Amazing Grace,” claiming the documentary used her likeness without her permission. The case was settled.

According to court records, with Pollack’s help, Elliott had obtained a receipt deed from Warner Bros. granting him the rights to the film and moved on.

In 2013, Elliot said Warner Bros. found the 1972 contract for the performance, which gave them permission to pass the rights to the footage to Elliott.

However, when the film was about to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2015, Franklin was granted a restraining order, alleging the documentary violated her right to name and likeness and violated her privacy.

The film was withdrawn and its planned debut at the Toronto Film Festival was also canceled.

“It’s not that I’m not happy with the film because I love the film myself,” Franklin told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s just – well, legally, I really shouldn’t be talking about it because there are issues.”

In the same article, Elliott said, “I love her [Franklin]. i respect her We have been trying to get her to participate for eight years and we still hope that she will be there.”

Elliott stayed in touch with Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece. Three years later, when Franklin died of advanced pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, he was invited to her funeral in Detroit. Shortly thereafter, he showed the completed documentary to Owens, who was then the executor of her aunt’s estate and some 50 family members at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum.

“I remember it vividly, it was amazing, no pun intended,” Owens told The Times last year. “We absolutely loved it.”

Owens, who no longer represents the property, said her aunt never explained her troubles with the film. “She really didn’t go into details … She just said they couldn’t come to an agreement.”

After the screening, Owens said. “I consented to him releasing it on behalf of the estate.”

“We were hoping it would be Oscar-worthy, but it didn’t turn out that way…it definitely should have been shown more broadly.” Doc about Aretha Franklin mired in legal fight

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