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.

[To read the rest of this essay,
visit Good Letters at Image.]