Doc on Aretha Franklin mired in legal battle

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

NPR hailed the film as “transcendent”, calling it “nothing short of a revelation”.

While the Times raves that it is “an engrossing artifact, the rare making-of documentary that doesn’t just comment but merges completely with its subject matter”.

At the time of the concert, Franklin was at the peak of his fame and power, with 20 albums and five Grammys to his credit. The two-night sessions marked a return to his gospel roots. Recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts; Franklin was backed by the Southern California Community Choir. The Gospel Icon was presided over by the Reverend James Cleveland.

The sessions produced a live album, the double-platinum “Amazing Grace,” and earned Franklin a Grammy for soulful gospel performance.

But the footage, made by Sydney Pollack, has languished in an unfinished, unseen vault for almost 50 years.

When it was finally released, the documentary’s prospects for box office success and awards triumph seemed assured. But it only garnered limited theatrical airplay before ending up on Hulu in 2019 and was largely absent from major awards season considerations.

What happened to the film is now the subject of a legal dispute. On Wednesday, Amazing Grace Movie LLC (of which producer Alan Elliott is the principal) sued its distributor Neon, the independent powerhouse behind the Oscar-winning films “Parasite” and “I, Tonya”, in the Supreme Court of the state of New York in New York County, accusing the independent distributor of a host of practices that crippled the documentary’s potential success.

The lawsuit shines a light on the complexity of producing the life stories of real people and is the latest legal twist in the long-tortured story of “Amazing Grace’s” journey to the big screen.

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

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

According to the lawsuit, a month after the documentary’s premiere, Neon “fraudulently enticed” Elliott to agree to a distribution deal. Elliott had been “actively shopping” for the film from potential partners, when Neon publicly announced that it had acquired the North American distribution rights to “Amazing Grace” – before a deal was reached.

“Neon’s premature and false announcement had an immediate chilling effect on offers from other distributors who were actively competing for a distribution deal,” the lawsuit states.

Tom Quinn and representatives for Neon were not immediately available for comment.

The lawsuit further alleges that Neon, Elliott “heavily armed” in the deal and that Tom Quinn, Neon’s chief executive, “insisted [it] “be backdated to reflect the date of the fraudulent press announcement.”

Additionally, the complaint alleges that Neon reneged on its promises 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 key in inducing the plaintiff to enter into a domestic distribution deal with Neon, as there is a long history of black film under-marketing in Hollywood, and the plaintiff did not want to see this phenomenon confirmed for the picture. .”

“Neon kept the image out of theaters and away from communities where its release would have the most impact, and instead licensed the image to streamers such as Hulu.”

The lawsuit also outlines allegations that Neon did little to market the film, “abandoned all efforts to promote Picture’s awards race” and failed to properly account for the film’s earnings and audit requests.

According to IMDb, the film, which was released in 243 theaters in North America, earned $4.45 million in the United States and Canada and $7.79 million worldwide. The film won the NAACP Image Award for Best Documentary and garnered several nominations, including from the London Critics Circle, the San Sebastián International Film Festival and the International Documentary Assn.

The suit seeks a jury trial and compensatory damages of at least $5 million, as well as punitive damages.

“This lawsuit is designed to give the film its due and send a clear message to Neon that taking advantage of independent filmmakers carries legal and reputational risks,” said Maurice Pessah, an attorney representing Amazing Grace Movie LLC.

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

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

Last year, two biopics of Franklin dueling were released. The first, “Genius: Aretha”, a series aired on the National Geographic Channel with Cynthia Erivo was criticized by the family. It was followed by the film “Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson, whom Franklin had approved for the role before her death. The film features the recording of his influential live album “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.

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

Pollack, who earned an Oscar nomination for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” was chosen by Warner Bros. to make the movie. But he neglected to use a clapperboard to sync visual footage with audio, making it nearly impossible to match sound with screen images. For decades, raw footage has been gathering dust in a vault.

Elliott first heard of 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 documents. Pollack died in 2008.

Hailing from a show-business family, Elliott 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 Music Director of the Grammy’s.

The family befriended Benny Medina, now a well-known talent manager, who lived in St. Elmo Village, a community drop-in center 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.”

Once Elliott solved the technical challenges of digitizing and synchronizing the images, he faced many obstacles that derailed his release.

In 2011, Franklin sued Elliott, refusing to allow “Amazing Grace” to air, claiming the documentary used her likeness without her permission. The matter has been settled.

According to court documents, Elliott had obtained a waiver from Warner Bros., with help from Pollack, giving him the rights to the film and moved forward.

In 2013, Elliot said that Warner Bros. had found the 1972 contract on the performance which gave them permission to assign the rights to the footage to Elliott.

However, in 2015, as the film was about to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Franklin received an emergency injunction, claiming the documentary violated his name and likeness rights and invaded his life. private.

The film was pulled and its scheduled Toronto Film Festival debut was also cancelled.

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

In the same post, Elliott said, “I love it [Franklin]. I respect her. For eight years we have been trying to engage her to be a part of it, and we continue to hope that she will be a part of it.

Elliott stayed in contact with Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece. Three years later, when Franklin died at age 76 of advanced pancreatic cancer, he was invited to his funeral in Detroit. Soon after, he screened the finished documentary for Owens, who was then the executor of his aunt’s estate and about 50 family members at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum.

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

Owens, who no longer represents the estate, said his aunt never explained her issues with the film. “She really didn’t go into elaborate detail…She just said they weren’t able to come to an agreement.”

After the screening, Owens said, “I have approved it for release 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 screened more widely.”

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