Filmmakers on Film: Alan Elliott

Updated: Nov 19, 2019

In order for us as humans to advance, we need to look to the past. This is something that we as a people have had trouble with, and it is astonishing how few film students have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice.

Alan Elliott is the realizer and producer of AMAZING GRACE, the long-unfinished 1972 Aretha Franklin documentary shot by a Sydney Pollack-led crew. AMAZING GRACE was released this year to universal acclaim. Alan is a former music executive.

The following is from Alan Elliott on his recommendation:

Alan Elliott: I always go back to the same movie, my favorite movie ever, which is 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In a very strange way, it's the blueprint for AMAZING GRACE, and it could be viewed in so many different ways.

For me, I sometimes watch the movie and see it as a musical. It's a very interesting thing because Stanley Kubrick had before 2001 employed Hollywood composers to do his movies and some of them were really memorable, LOLITA was very memorable for this little thing that Nelson Riddle wrote (Alan sings the score), and so he hired a composer named Alex North who was very famous in Hollywood and had done the whole score for 2001, and Kubrick threw it out, and in throwing it out he decided to make a movie that many years later i would say is like George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFFITI in which every scene had a song from the time, and they were almost like greatest hits. They became a song score, and that really hadn't been done before, and that certainly hadn't been done with classical music, “The Blue Daube” being one of the more memorable things. There’s also György Ligeti's abstract music for some of the events in 2001 - the movie often plays as a silent movie with that music in the background, often with very long, long takes with the actors or models, which was far ahead of its time in 1968.

So, 2001 has obviously a very large premise, which is mankind and our existence and our time here and how we got here and why we're here and is there anybody else, and it's bold enough to take on that subject matter and humanize it and dehumanize it because when you're thinking about humanizing it, you're talking about a lot of people in there, but you're also talking about artificial intelligence. That’s certainly relevant for today or any day because since 1968, computers have become such a part of our lives. Very wide lenses are used, and when you use a wide lens, you're often right up in somebody’s face, or you have a perspective of being in a room with someone, and that sort of subliminal conversation informs the storytelling because oftentimes lens choices will be more generic. A longer lens will give you some distance and could be seen as peering in on a conversation, but with these wide-angle lenses and these choices, it’s a different conversation to be inside the room than to be peering in from outside the conversation. And Kubrick wants us inside all of these conversations, I think, and the music choices that he makes are so specific. They feel like such a natural complement to the visuals that they allow for this otherworldly experience, and music and sound are such a huge part of the film experience.

For film students, a primary question becomes, where are you watching this movie? Are you watching this movie in a theater? Are you watching it on your computer? You might be watching it on your phone. Are you going to be distracted? Are you going to be immersed? And perhaps today's filmmaking is made for an immersed experience where people can be checking their phones, and maybe they won't miss so much. I feel like 2001 is a movie that wrests us with its long takes, with its lack of sound, because in space, when they go to space, he turns off all the sound, and it’s a quiet, quiet world, and that has a different effect than the immersive nature of today's bang-bang cuts and intrusive music choices that may at times feel more like sound design than actual score.

A genius of film scores, Johnny Mandel used to tell his music editor, “If I'm writing more than 15 minutes of music in a film, turn me off because then the film is not doing its job, and my ability to write a theme that you will remember will be obscured by the fact that there’s just too much information going on and too much music going on.” So [Jerry] Goldsmith and Mandel grew up in this world of scoring films where there’s 15-20 minutes of music in a two-hour movie. Now it's not uncommon to do what they call wall-to-wall music, which would be music that starts at the beginning and ends at the end. It's very common with Hans Zimmer with the Christopher Nolan movies where they just turn on this music, and it sometimes feels like sound design, and it sometimes feels like score, but you’re always bombarded with that sense experience whether you like it or not. You could argue it’s the inverse of Kubrick, where he's giving you silence, and silence has its own sound, so that becomes a taste conversation.

I'd say for any student to be aware of 2001 and to be aware of the interesting questions that are being posited by the filmmaker and writer and how to investigate that narrative is really fascinating. There's not a lot of contextual through-line. It requires an immersive audience to make their own decisions as to what is going on and to what the story is, and that to me is where I'm most interested in film, where we can start to ask one question of an audience, and if there's 200 people watching the movie, 200 people have their own experience. While the film can guide us there, I would hope there's open-ended experience for everyone to come away with. 2001 gets to joy, gets to pain, gets to mortality, and has the sound of music, and that’s rare. This is certainly a generational-shifting movie, and it feeds for better or worse to the next generation of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and more than anyone, Francis Ford Coppola, so in that way, it is a huge, monumental movie that affects the culture, and affects the universe in that way. That's my movie. Ask me questions.

Joshua Handler: You mentioned that 2001 was a blueprint for AMAZING GRACE. Can you explain that?

AE: I really do enjoy the quiet, and I do enjoy these very long takes and this sort of sealing us in a room and allowing us to be a participant like I feel like with the wide-angle lenses that Kubrick takes when we go to the spacecraft entry point. We sort of see that there's a curvature because we're in space and there has to be gravity, but we sit in this meeting with people, and it’s just this very wide shot, and we sort of watch everybody, and we listen and we're there. That's what I always wanted with AMAZING GRACE: for everybody to feel like you're in the room with Aretha Franklin and it's 1972, and in that way, you're in the way with Stanley Kubrick and everybody up at the base station, and they’re having the conversation about what's going on on Klavius, and that is fascinating stuff to me in terms of just pacing and allowing audience this safe space to view what we’re giving them. In that way, I don't think there’s anything that influenced me as much as 2001.

JH: A few weeks ago, you mentioned that AMAZING GRACE is structured like a two-act musical. When I saw it again with you, it became evident.

AE: It's the amateurs who borrow, professionals who steal. Luckily the structure of popular musicals over the years borrows a lot from Shakespeare. Shakespeare started his plays by having all of the people stand up at the top and introduce themselves, and that's what we do with AMAZING GRACE. Here's the choir members, here's the choir master, here's Sydney Pollack, here is Aretha Franklin, here’s the cameraman, here’s what were going to show you. Then you start with one of the more famous musicals for me: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. It opened up in Washington out of town for Broadway, and they were having a tough time, and they didn't know why, and evidently very late in the process they came up with the song, “Comedy Tonight”, and “Comedy Tonight” is a furthering of that conversation of the Shakespearian introduction of everyone – it's something exciting, something inviting, something for everyone, a comedy tonight, and were going to explain why we’re here.

“On Our Way”, which opens AMAZING GRACE, is the choir walking in, and it's very theatrical the way they walk in. They walk in with their silver vests, and they're walking through the crowd to tell everyone, “We are on our way back home,” and their home is the church, and for this day they're on their way back home. This is a very theatrical opening, and then it goes into what in the theatre is called an “I Wish” song, and Aretha’s “I Wish” song is "Wholy Holy". She wants for all men to be brothers, and that is her wish still in the middle of the Vietnam War, still three-and-a-half years removed from Dr. King's death, we're eight months in front of the Wattstax Festival in Los Angeles later that year. Black Power has come and had an interesting turn, which is that the Black Panthers are in decline, unfortunately, and what will come next? Jesse Jackson is having his period with Operation Push, and it's another generation. Dr. Martin Luther King had come from being introduced by Aretha’s father C.L. Franklin, and he's a little bit older than Aretha, he's doing his seminal work obviously from '55 all the way through '68, and then he's shot and killed, and then its Aretha's time to be one of the, if not the seminal figure in the Civil Rights world after King dies, so she has this moment of this "I Wish" song, "I wish all men were brothers." And then we get into an up-tempo number,, which is always good in the theater, get people dancing, and we go from there up until the end of the first act which is a big cliffhanger of a song, which you don't see coming because the name of the movie is AMAZING GRACE, so we all figure, "Well they're going to end with 'Amazing Grace.'" No, we're going to end night one with "Amazing Grace" and that's a big surprise and you have to keep people on their toes, and "Amazing Grace" is a bit of a surprise, but it is this end of night one, and then Reverend Cleveland tells us quite confidently, "You haven't seen anything yet, wait 'til you see night two!" and night two builds with a very big song to open it very much like Broadway musicals do to re-gather everyone and reconvene this energy which is "Mary Don't You Weep."

Now get a subplot which is Aretha's father is there that night, and Clara Ward is there, and these are guest appearances that we hadn't seen coming, and we're going to have to at least be aware of the energy that their appearances have on her, and you end up with a big end of the night show which is "Never Grow Old," which is the first song she ever sang, which is the closing number of the movie, and then what they call the "eleven o'clock number". I'd say that the most interesting thing in terms of stealing of structure is that usually the end of the first act and the end of the second act's songs in Broadway musicals are dedicated to up-tempo numbers, and in this sense, both of them are ballads, which is "Amazing Grace" to end night one and "Never Grow Old" to end night two, but then you have the encore number which is over the credits. You have a reprise of "The Old Landmark" to keep everybody's toes tapping and that energy flowing, and it's completely stolen from Broadway musicals, and until we did it, I hadn't really thought about the fact that Broadway musicals have the same elements in terms of pacing as Black Church, but now we know.

JH: To loop it back to 2001, do you feel that 2001 in its use of music and its structure was influenced by musicals?

AE: I do. I think Kubrick is a fan of music and the next movie he makes is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE which makes use of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN as a key device. It's referencing musicals obviously, it's the most famous American musical. He uses it twice in the movie, which is The Droogs use it while they're plundering, and then the movie ends with the Gene Kelly version, so Kubrick's awareness of musical context, certainly a piece like "The Blue Danube" was written at a time before there is musical theatre, but something like that is a big hit, and hit records and hit songs are the center of musicals whether it's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL or any of those things, having that moment and having that energy onscreen goes back all the way to THE JAZZ SINGER, so I would argue in Mr. Kubrick's absence that he's certainly aware, and I would even go farther which is to say that because he uses complete pieces, these are not just quotes from "The Blue Danube", they are extended quotes, and shortly thereafter, many of the musical geniuses of the time, The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, start to make music videos, and they're all made in the wake of 2001, and not to say A HARD DAY'S NIGHT hadn't come out four years before or that Elvis hadn't come before that, but there's a different conversation I think after 2001 in terms of serious filmmaking and its influence on music videos, which is a whole other discourse, but then you're talking about the great film directors of our era, some of them, David Fincher, Spike Jonze come out of music videos. 

JH: We're still feeling the effects today.

AE: You look at a Christopher Nolan movie. There is no Christopher Nolan movie without 2001.