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Ascent

I’m under headphones above 10,000 feet, and Aretha Franklin is flying the plane.

At least it feels that way. Anne and I are headed to what we call “a homecoming,” an annual gathering of authors at the edge of the Frio River in the Texas hill country — inspirations, influences, kindred spirits. I’m feeling a familiar anticipatory buzz of gratitude and hope. I will see so many of my favorite writers in person there. Oh, I can read their profound manuscripts all year long, but there’s nothing like being in their company. It is medicine for my weary heart.

So it feels right that I’m listening to Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, an audio record of a homecoming in which “the Queen of Soul,” at the apex of her ascent to pop-music celebrity, suddenly returned to the context of a community church — New Temple Baptist Church in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, to be exact — to sing among fellow believers the songs that had lit a soulful fire within her when she was a child.

I’m hooked on this sound. I’ve been flying high since my discovery of a new documentary — also called Amazing Grace — about those two nights of live music in 1972 when director Sydney Pollack set up cameras and microphones to capture this convergence of songs and sermons inside New Temple. It’s such an unlikely big-screen experience: Footage of these legendary hymn sings has been unreleased for almost half a century due to technical challenges of matching image and audio, and Franklin herself apparently opposed its release. But here it is, in theaters. And when you see it, when you hear it, you’ll know why it’s an unexpected arthouse hit. You’ll know why I returned to the theater to see it twice in one weekend.

This movie may look at first like an invitation to worship Franklin herself, but that’s not the nature of the experience: Amazing Grace is about the ecstatic play of Franklin, the Reverend James Cleveland (her childhood friend), the Southern California Community choir, the congregation, and I daresay — for those with eyes to see and ears to hear — the Holy Spirit. They show us a community finding release from the weight of prejudice, from the trauma of the recent Watts riots, from the frustrations of an emancipation promise proclaimed but unfulfilled. And they find that release through music about God’s longsuffering faithfulness. It’s clear that thought their hearts, though bruised and beaten, have not been overcome.

If you, like me, have felt weighed down in recent years by emboldened forces of hatred in this country and the world — open attacks on any American vision that values “liberty and justice for all” — then this homecoming will bless and console you, too.

The timing of this release is interesting. Though these early-70s echoes are significant — as a vital historical artifact, as a crucial cultural testimony for black Americans, and as unparalleled expressions of Gospel music — they’re not the only sounds elevating me.

While the airplane hums, I’ve enhanced my “homecoming” playlist with tracks from two more concert films. Both reveal singer-songwriters at their peak; both spotlight women of singular artistic vision; both document highlights from multiple shows with career-spanning setlists.

Just this week, I’ve witnessed, with slack-jawed amazement, Homecoming: the new Netflix film capturing the colossal spectacle of Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performances. So I’ve downloaded the 40-track album that accompanies the film to relive that excitement.

And I’ve also been enchanted by the intimate art onstage in Sam Phillips: Live @ Largo at the Coronet, a film of my favorite songwriter performing with an all-star ensemble of musicians at the top of their game.

An outdoor arena, a nightclub, a church — these three events couldn’t be more different.

Beyoncé’s performance is ferocious, bombastic, bigger than any Presidential inauguration, and probably the most ambitious rock-concert blockbuster ever staged. She’s asserting dominance — a general carried on the shoulders of marching bands and dance troupes. As “Queen Bey” struts up the runway to the stage dressed as the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, she rallies and empowers her vast army of female listeners (lovingly branded “the Beyhive”) to change the world with their confidence. We hear Malcolm X’s voice confirming that there is no person in America more disrespected than the black woman, and Beyoncé, in her seemingly superhuman zeal, convinces us that she just might fix that.

In contrast with this earth-shaking exhibition, Sam Phillips’s concert is an intimate, hushed affair in which the audience seems to be holding their breath so as not to disrupt the delicate, poetic investigations of their chanteuse. Phillips frequently opens her shows by informing her audience that they’ve come to the wrong place if they’re looking for entertainment — and, indeed, she barely moves. The drama is all in her eyes and her lyrics as she half-whispers questions into the dark, then waits as if listening for a response. Where I feel I can barely stand in the gale-force, hair-whipping winds of “Beychella,” Sam Phillips draws me in, her music a magnifying glass for matters of the spirit. An expatriate of “Contemporary Christian Music,” she, like Bob Dylan, has abandoned the sing-along clichés that dominate religious radio and gone looking for God in a wilderness of poetry. She’s a seeker, strumming her guitar with the word “faith” tattooed on the fingers of one hand and “doubt” upon the others. And you may have to seek her out if you want to participate in this journey of musical discovery. (Start at samphillips.com.)

But it’s Franklin spiriting my flight to San Antonio this morning. At the announcement of Reverend James Cleveland, she responds like Jesus to the call of John the Baptist — she walks into those deep waters of Gospel refrains, is immersed, and then rises, a vessel filled and spilling over with inspiration, singing with a radiance unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.

For all of their striking distinctions, these three performers have so much in common: Inspiration. Concentration. Perspiration. Communication. Elevation. And I find each one essential for my mind, body, and spirit as I momentarily rise above the dark clouds of corrosive days.

Reviving the Spirit

I am not the first to note the serendipitous convergence of Amazing Grace and Homecoming — two landmark events led by exemplars of that most ignored and abused demographic: African American women.

And I am not the writer best-equipped to interpret what I’ve witnessed in them. I was, after all, only a baby when Franklin sang; I’m too young to fully understand what her live performances meant to that troubled congregation. And I am too old and too white to appreciate Beyoncé with the fervor that my students — many of whom are the brown and black youth of Knowles-Carter’s target audience — feel all the way to their bones. (For an example of insightful interpretation, read the reflection by Seattle Pacific University student Michael Miller, published at Cultural Consent, on how powerfully Homecoming resonates with him.) Of these three shows, the one spotlighting Sam Phillips, an artist whose journey began among white Protestant evangelicals, is the one whose language speaks to me most directly without the help of cultural translators.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to mark this moment for how both Franklin and Beyoncé revive the spirits of communities bent beneath burdens of past and present persecution; how both artists generously welcome those outside of their specific heritage into their communion; and how both recordings transcend what could have been mere egomania, precisely because they direct our attention to those around them.

I see hero-worship in the fans’ wild awe. But I also see gratitude, a sense of being seen and loved. Beyoncé is not so much building a blockbuster as she is marshaling an army, and it’s an army with a cause: to assert black excellence, pride, influence, and integrity, so that this generation might not only survive but thrive, even as they are (to quote that same Ezekiel passage preached by Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction) “beset on all sides by the tyranny of evil men.”

The film’s title acknowledges that while Beyoncé has won the world’s favor, she has not sold her soul in doing so; knowing the spotlight will follow her, she heads home so that it will illuminate her people as well. That’s why Beyoncé gives prominent place to the voice of Nina Simone, who says of her black audience, “My job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them, and I will do it by whatever means necessary.”

And, just as she revisits songs from her landmark album Lemonade, a document of her journey through rage to forgiveness for her unfaithful but repentant husband, she brings Jay-Z onstage to sing with her in a show of reconciliation and joyous partnership. (She also brings intimate images of her newborn children into the film.) Beyoncé’s more than a preacher. Her audience knows that it’s personal — I’m not talking about her costumes when I say that she’s got skin in the game.

Staging this spectacle on just such a scaffold, Beyoncé may be deliberately imitating the events of January 1972, when Franklin “came home” to church.

Franklin’s homecoming lit a fire of “hallelujahs” even before she entered the building for those two nights of musical prayer. Having already released more than 20 celebrated albums, earned five of her eventual 18 Grammys, and reached #1 eleven times with pop and R&B singles like “Respect,” “Day Dreaming,” and her rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Franklin could easily have allowed the Amazing Grace concerts to be all about her status as “the First Lady of Music” (as Reverend Cleveland hails her before her entrance). Instead, the Queen of Soul paid homage to the influences that inspired her, and turned her face like a mirror toward heaven. Amazing Grace responds to black America’s past and present darkness by focusing on her firm foundation, on her “Precious Memories,” on “What a Friend [She Has] in Jesus.” As the cameras zoom in, she affirms the healing power of the Gospel in a community still smoking from recent fires.

She, too, invites guests to the party, and then lifts them up with sincere gratitude. Franklin’s father, himself an icon of his art form (preaching), himself an unfaithful husband, is invited to the microphone for a blessedly short, personal, and poignant testimony. There, he celebrates Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson — the voices who inspired his young daughter — but he also announces with a spirited mic drop that, contrary to the claims of her religious critics who have counted her as “lost” in her secular success, Aretha, for all of her worldly adventures, “never left the church.”

Sure, Pollack’s footage has Hollywood moments; he can’t help but aim his lenses at the back row in order to bring into sharp focus a familiar face: Mick Jagger himself! He’s standing and he’s shaking those hips to Franklin’s Gospel groove! But how small that Rolling Stone seems within this resurrection sound. The bright lights, the cameras, and the visiting celebrities dissolve into the background and we are caught up by an undeniable movement of the Spirit within the sanctuary.

And Franklin, singing from this community’s wounded heart, raises a familiar refrain as if the ink is still fresh on these words:

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
And Grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

And that hour of new belief becomes something more than a story about Franklin’s past — it becomes a timeless truth. Hearing it, I feel as if I, an outsider, am blessed with an experience of that very hour, that dawning of belief, for the first time.

Embodiment and Worship

At Pentecost, communities were inspired to prophesy in new languages, confusing those who stood at the edges, cynics who quickly wrote them off as drunk or insane.

Bob Dylan, losing patience with those cynics, wrote “Ballad of the Thin Man” for them:

You should be made to wear earphones…
‘Cause something is happening here
And you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Much of what makes these performances so much more affecting than highly produced music videos is the fact that we are witnessing things that took place live. And, instead of saying “You had to be there,” these films invite us in: You too can be here.

It’s the in-person-ness of it — the embodiment, the physicality of the artist’s presence among her people — that makes it all ring true. Catapulted into unanticipated fame and immeasurable fortune, these artists have not regarded their status a thing to be grasped, but have descended from pop-culture privilege to be with their communities and serve, and to give credit where credit is due.

If I have any misgivings about Homecoming, it’s that God only gets name-checked backstage—in interviews, in a pre-performance prayer. During “Beychella,” all attention is on the shining icon. In Amazing Grace, all eyes, whether bright with joy or brimming with tears (or both), are turned heavenward. When this connection between artist, audience, and Inspiration is healthy, all sense of hierarchy dissolves. Each lifts the other up in acts of attention, expression, and gratitude. I’d be hard-pressed to name another big-screen moment of a human being so elevated in rapture as the close-ups of Franklin, sweat shining on her brow, her smile ecstatic, her attention locked on a signal from beyond the human sphere. She is radiant.

But I have been, from time to time, similarly caught up in a live performance. I recall a moment in Over the Rhine’s own 2008 Taft Theater homecoming concerts in Cincinnati — their 20th anniversary shows. Singing their apocalyptic anthem “Changes Come,” Karin Bergquist, herself inspired by Mahalia Jackson, turned the refrain from “Changes come / turn my world around,” to “Jesus come / Turn my world around / Bring the whole thing down….” We half-expected the roof to rip open like a veil to the Great Beyond.

A few summers later, in Santa Fe, Bergquist and the band turned the song “All My Favorite People are Broken” over to her husband, Linford Detweiler, at the piano, where he improvised until we realized that the chords he had been playing all along were, in fact, a rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” — and the congregation spontaneously burst into song.

I look back to an Easter Sunday eighteen years ago, when I was pressed by a spirited crowd against Portland’s Rose Garden stage to witness U2’s “Elevation 2001” up close. We watched Bono climb off the stage and up onto a railing in front of a huge white banner on which fans had painted “Sunday Easter Sunday.” He knelt, waved for the lights to go down, and improvised a sing-along in a dark like a cosmos of cell phones and cigarette lighters. What did we sing? “Amazing Grace.” For a while, the line between artist and audience vanished. We were reconciled in worship, shining like stars in the dark.

It’s one thing to watch this from a distance — as I watch Beyoncé or Franklin — without a lot of personal history with the artist, without a deep understanding of the vocabulary of that specific community assembled and cheering. It’s easy to be skeptical, even cynical, of so much emotion, enthusiasm, and — dare I say — worship of the icons onstage.

It’s another thing, though, if you have a history with the artist. If those songs have become soundtracks to your life, if the lyrics both shape your experience and express your experience when you sing them.

The Artist’s Gift of Herself

If I were to show Sam Phillips Live @ Largo at the Coronet to others whose journeys have not been soundtracked to Phillips’s many records, through a career of highs and heartbreak, they may comment on their opinion of her distinctive vocal style, on what they think of her onstage minimalism, or whether they find her lyrics “relatable.” But as a faithful listener to Phillips’ work since the late ‘80s, I am retracing my own life story through the landscapes of highs and lows, faith and doubt, when I hear her revisit these songs. I’m moved by a sense of companionship, and by the rare sight of a human being at the peak of her powers, fully attuned to her muses, shining in her moment.

In my 2008 interview with Phillips for Image, she spoke of writers like Henry Miller and G. K. Chesterton who have influenced her lyrics, but she added, “I became more interested in imagery and things beyond words. I always have a sense that the music is a lot bigger than what I end up writing about. I’m always aspiring to get there, to do better.”

I hear this “aspiration” in her song “Love is Everywhere I Go,” where she sings, “Burning light inside my dreams / I wake up in the dark / The light is outside my door.” To me, this sounds like an echo of G.K. Chesterton: “There is one thing that gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” Singing about loss and heartache, she describes what it’s like to “ride the pain down” to a low place in the dark. In that state of necessity and longing, she sings, “My dark heart lit up the skies.” There is something deeply consoling about this: the discovery that our humble sufferings can become occasions for grace, illuminating the way for others. That song is titled, appropriately, “Reflecting Light.” Here, as in any of her performances, it becomes a poignant moment of reflection for artist and audience alike.

To apply a line from Arcade Fire to Aretha Franklin’s rapture or Sam Phillips’ rumination — if any fans in attendance think they’ve “found the Connector,” either artist will remind them that she is “just a Reflector.”

Just as Beyoncé, in Homecoming, acknowledges that God has guided her to this place to serve God’s purpose, all three are united in their own versions of Psalm 116:

“What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation — a toast to God! I’ll pray in the name of God! I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do. And I’ll do it together with his people.”


Showing the film Babette’s Feast to the 40 students in my “Film & Faith” class at SPU, I turn and watch their faces during the film’s climactic moments, when the sisters who hosted the feast are awestruck by the revelation that their houseguest and cook was once one of the world’s most renowned chefs, and that she spent her personal fortune on their meal. So far, the students have understood that this is a story about an artist’s generosity. But when Babette explains her motivation, she speaks not of charity but of desire: “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.”

This testimony discomforts some of them to the point of calling Babette “selfish.” If she’d wanted to, they argue, she could have sacrificed her desire to “show off” and instead invested her vast resources more effectively, over the long term, giving the poor something to nourish them for years to come, rather than blowing it all on one big night. But I think they miss the movie’s most important revelation: that we sometimes need these lavish, extravagant glimpses of the kingdom of God in its fullness in order to carry hope forward through days when it’s hard to sing along.

The pageantry of Homecoming is excessive, at once an act of generosity and a testimony of gratitude. Beyoncé is determined to spend it all so that she might expand her listeners’ imagination of the possible. And, as she describes it during an offstage interlude, this will be the last time she pushes her body so far, to accomplish so much. It’s costly to fly at these elevations.

With the departure of Aretha Franklin still fresh in my mind, it was especially moving to hear her sing “I’ve heard of a land / where we shall never grow old.” And it’s tempting to think, as we behold her in her prime, that this “land” she anticipated might be the world of art itself — the music, the movies. Those are, after all, the media through which we can enter into this communion.

But no, these records serve as “signposts in a strange land” (another Chesterton phrase that appears in Phillips’ lyrics). They point us to glimpses of a glory to come. We have to come back down and carry this hope with us back into the haste and the hassle of this present suffering.

Through Phillips, music moves the mind and magnifies sacred mysteries. Through Beyoncé, music moves the body and magnifies the marginalized. In Franklin, music moves the soul and magnifies the Lord. As I observe these artists among their audiences, the performances fuse into a greater whole — a revelation that there are so many ways to be human beings fully alive, liberated, and lifted up.

Descent

As the pilot brings me back to my senses with his announcement that we have “begun our descent” into San Antonio, my attention turns again to our pending assembly, where I will stand in the presence of bright artists and receive the inspiration that they so faithfully reflect. I wonder if they will sense the light that I have been receiving through these recordings, if my face will shine like Moses coming down from the mountain. There’s something happening here…. And while I may not be able to put it into words or sing it as beautifully as the Queen of Soul does, I think I know what it is.

In the words of the Reverend James Cleveland — can I get a witness?


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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