The Queen of Soul succeeds in obtaining a ban on ‘lost’ documentary

October 2015

Film & TV, performers



Aretha Franklin has been granted an injunction against the premiere of the movie Amazing Grace as Telluride Film Festival, on the basis that the film violates her right to her own name and likeness, invades her privacy abd interferes with her contractual right of approval.
The film,  “Amazing Grace”, documents Franklin recording the live gospel album of the same name recorded at the New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972, with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger one of many stars in rhe audience. Aretha was backed up by a gospel choir and the recording is the best selling gosepl album of all time in the USA.
At the time a technical error meant that the sound was never synchronised with the film’s images as the film’s director, Sydney Pollack, who collected over 20 hours of footage, failed to bring along the equipment that would allow him to synchronize the sound to the live pictures. The (silent) movie then sat for decades in a vault unseen, until  it was completed recently by Alan Elliot.  Pollack died in 2008. Franklin sued Elliott in 2011 in a bid to stop the documentary ever being made public. The film’s now producer Elliott said Pollack wanted him to finish the Film after he died, and he acquired certain rights to the movie from Warner Bros in 2008. The singer said at the time: “For him to show that film, for him to completely and blatantly ignore me, would be terrible. For him to do that would encourage other people to do the same thing and have no respect for me”.
However the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado was  planning on showing ‘Amazing Grace’ with three screenings in its schedule and Franklin then filed legal papers in Denver – phoning in her testimony from Detroit to the Colarado District Court – in a bid to get an injunction stopping the screenings. Franklin’s lawyers said that Pollack recorded their client’s 1972 performance on the understanding that any commercial use of the recording would be subject to the singer’s approval. Screening the film without her consent, therefore, would breach her contractual as well as intellectual property, image and privacy rights.
The Telluride Film Festival countered by arguing that cancelling the screenings at such short notice would damage its reputation, adding that an insufficient number of people would see the documentary at the event to damage Franklin’s image.
A 1969 contract between Franklin and Warner Bros was also presented to the court, seemingly granted permission from the singer for the film to be used, though US District Judge Kane said that this agreement only related to the sound recording. Franklin’s lawyers argued that that the deal she originally had made with Pollack allowed them to film the performance but required her consent to distribute the film. The deal (a so called ‘quitclaim’ deed) between Warner Bros and Elliott seemingly makes specific reference to the need to get Ms. Franklin’s permission to use the concert footage. Judge Kane said: “Even though Pollack had permission to film it, he didn’t have permission to release it.”
Judge Kane granted a 14 day injunction preventing the film from being screened. The Toronto Film Festival also has plans to screen the movie on September 10th but the US ban would not apply, so Franklin’s legal team would have to seek another injuction in the Canadian courts. In the US the case will continue, but Judge Kane wrote in his order that Franklin “has a high likelihood of success on the merits”.
In a statement Franklin said: “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.” and and
Franklin has now filed new legal proceedings against Elliott, in which her lawyers claim the producer showed the finished version of ‘Amazing Grace’ to film industry buyers in Toronto last week, even after the public screenings were axed. This, the new legal papers allege, “violates Ms Franklin’s contractual and statutory rights, her rights to use and control her name and likeness, and represents an invasion of her privacy”. Ms Franklin is now asking the US court  to confirm that ‘Amazing Grace’ cannot be shown anywhere without her approval, while seeking a permanent injunction to stop Elliott, or any associate of his, from further screening or distributing the film.
(16.09.15): In response Elliott has now seemingly agreed to halt any plans to screen the film for 30 days in order to allow negotiations with Franklin’s people that might secure her permission for the documentary to be shown – and according to the  The Hollywood Reporter, that’s all down to money, not respect – either a large upfront advance for Franklin’s approval, a share of revenues – or both.

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