There are a few moments every year since he passed, in which one can almost feel Roger Ebert’s presence in the Virginia Theatre. That sense that he is still a part of this community he helped to build was heavy in the air on Wednesday night as the 21st Annual Ebertfest opened with a screening of “Amazing Grace,” followed by a breathtaking performance from the MLK Community Choir that totally brought the house down. The film proved to be a perfect choice to launch this year’s festival as it perfectly embodies that transformative power of expression that Ebert so admired and that Chaz Ebert continues to support. Recent editions of Ebertfest have ended with musical films and performances, but this reversal feels like the right decision—an experience that unites the audience in a way that gets them ready for what’s to come.
The reversal aspect of opening night was reflected in another way too in that the Q&A was actually before the film. Chaz Ebert felt that the movie itself is such an experience that sitting down to talk about it before the choir or even after wouldn’t really work. It was the right call as the choir allowed the audience to keep the momentum of the film through the performance and out into the cold Illinois air. Gathered on stage to discuss the film were Chaz Ebert, critic Whitney Spencer, producer Alan Elliott, and producer Tirrell D. Whittley.
Elliott spoke of his connection to the film from an early age, listening to the Amazing Grace album at the age of eight and having what he called a moment like Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” He explained how he became attached to the project in a story that also included that his family is the inspiration for “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” believe it or not. Most importantly, he expressed undying admiration for the film itself and the force of nature that was Aretha Franklin. As he put it, she should be the fifth face on Mt. Rushmore. Even though he’s seeing the movie four times a week lately with the national roll-out to theaters, he never grows tired of it. And neither does Whittley, who spoke of the passionate response he’s been seeing at screenings, where people clap, sing along, and even dance. It’s that kind of film.
There was some clapping and singing during “Amazing Grace,” but there seemed to be just as much awed reverence at what was unfolding. Watching Franklin return to her gospel roots and summon something arguably unmatched in gospel music history is really a cinematic event to behold. By the time she got to the title track, the audience was completely enthralled. And it feels like that sense of community—one that can only be achieved through great art—happened there in that moment. Let’s hope it continues for the next three days of Ebertfest 2019.
If you want to see “Amazing Grace,” check out this site and the hashtag #AmazingGraceMovie on social media. And check out the introduction and choir performance below.