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Ebertfest 2019 to Open with Aretha Franklin Documentary, Amazing Grace

Aretha Franklin died last August, but she’ll be lighting up the big screen at the 21st annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, or “Ebertfest,” coming April 10-13 to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois.

The Franklin concert film Amazing Grace,” shot nearly 50 years ago but stored in a vault for decades and now restored and released, will kick off this year’s festival – followed by a live performance by a community choir.

“Most years our opening night film has been a 70 mm celluloid. This year it will be 70 mm of soul,” said festival co-founder and host Chaz Ebert. “Instead of ending this year’s Ebertfest with a musical, as per tradition, we are opening it on a glorious, gospel-infused high note, thanks to Alan Elliott's pristine restoration of a Sydney Pollack-directed film chronicling the gospel performance of the ‘Queen of Soul’ over two days in Los Angeles in 1972.”

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The live performance will come from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana, directed by Noah Brown, Audrey Mock and Terry Napper. The choir was founded 34 years ago and sings annually at celebrations of MLK Day.

Following the choir’s performance will be an onstage Q&A with “Amazing Grace” producers Elliott and Tirrell D. Whittley.

All Ebertfest films are screened in the ornate Virginia Theatre, a restored downtown Champaign movie palace with a large screen, high-quality projection and sound, and a theatre organ. Festival guests attached to each film appear onstage for Q&As after screenings, and related talks and panel discussions are held at the Hyatt Place in Champaign and the U. of I.

Previously announced for this year’s festival was “A Year of the Quiet Sun” (1984), a post-World War II romance starring the late Scott Wilson, who had been a frequent Ebertfest guest. Organizers also announced that this year’s festival will celebrate the on-air partnership of Roger Ebert and Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper in “Ebert & Roeper” and also involve Roeper in the selection of two films.

Other films and the screening schedule will be announced in coming weeks.

Film critic Odie Henderson, in a four-star review of “Amazing Grace” for Rogerebert.com, called the film “a powerful love letter to the black church, offering a soul-shaking introduction for the unfamiliar and a grandmotherly yank of the arm for those who know – it drags you from the theater straight into the pews.”

Ebertfest was co-founded in 1999 by Chicago Sun-Times film critic and University of Illinois alumnus Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz. Organized in collaboration with the College of Media at the U. of I., the festival in large part celebrates films, genres and formats that have been overlooked by distributors, audiences and/or critics.

Since Roger Ebert’s death in 2013, Chaz Ebert has served as the festival producer, as well as host, working with longtime festival director Nate Kohn in selecting the films. They draw from lists Roger made over the first 15 years of the festival and select others based on his established criteria.

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Festival passes, covering all screenings, are available for $150 plus processing. A four-pack of passes can be purchased for $510, or 15 percent off. Additionally, a small number of U. of I. student passes will be made available priced at $100 each.

All passes can be purchased through ebertfest.comthevirginia.org or at the Virginia Theatre box office, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, 217-356-9063.

Tickets for individual movies will be available April 1, after the full schedule is announced. Updates will be posted at ebertfest.com.

Those interested in being a festival sponsor should contact Andy Hall, the festival’s project coordinator, at amhall2@illinois.edu.

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