Documentary doesn’t reveal enough
Betty Davis carved out a new role for women in soul and R&B. Her 1970s albums were bold statements of sexuality, lashed to a driving funk beat, their wild rawness underscored by Davis’ sartorial warrior queen vibe. Her live performances were equally unrestrained, meaning people often deemed her unsuitable for television appearances. For her third album, Nasty Gal, she moved up to a major label, Island. But then she disappeared. She never released a planned fourth album, and she never recorded again, leaving her budding audience scratching their heads, wondering what happened.
Betty: They Say I’m Different, newly released on DVD, tries to fill in some of the blanks in the story of a singer, songwriter, and producer who burned brightly before flaming out all too soon. But it ultimately comes up short, never really getting beneath the surface of its fascinating subject, offering only what amounts to a brief overview of a career that stalled before it could really take off.
Davis’ own reluctance to participate in the film doesn’t help director Phil Cox in this endeavor. She’s mostly present through audio interviews, and a few quick, fleeting glimpses of her sitting in (presumably) her home. But even without her direct presence, Cox could have explored other avenues that would have gone some way to fleshing out the story.
Cox has opted for an impressionistic style of montage and quick cutting, with a recurring piano motif giving the film a sense of dreaminess. In discussing her childhood years, Davis refers to there always being “a bird inside of me,” a bird she identifies as a crow, who introduced her to the power of the blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll; hence the pervasive imagery of crows in flight throughout the film.
But the film leaves you wanting to know more about the genesis of Davis’ music career. Cox presents it as beginning in 1967, when the Chambers Brothers recorded her song “Uptown to Harlem” in 1967. This overlooks some earlier singles she released on her arrival in New York City at the age of 17, as the Sixties were beginning to swing. It would be surely be of interest to learn that the singer who later delivered raunchy lines like “I used to whip him/I used to beat him/Oh, he used to dig it,” got her start sounding far more genteel, in the girl group-flavored single “Get Ready for Betty”: “All of you girls better hide your guys/’Cause I’m gonna get the first one that catches my eye.”
The rest of the film follows a similar course, skimming over the subject without delving any deeper. The transitional period from “Get Ready for Betty” to “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” (a minor R&B hit) came in Davis’ short tenure with Columbia Records, when she worked with Hugh Masekela and Miles Davis, who became her husband for a brief, turbulent year.
The film discusses her great influence on Miles, in both updating his “straight” wardrobe, and making him aware of the new sounds percolating in rock, introducing him to innovators like Jimi Hendrix. But there’s no reference to her having recorded with musicians who worked with Hendrix, as well as players like Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin who worked with Miles. It was a key time in her career, worthy of greater examination. What was it that Betty wanted to accomplish with her music? What kinds of songs did she want to record? Why did she take her songs in such an explicit direction? The film explores none of these questions, leaving the viewer at a loss about Davis’ creative development.
The paucity of live footage of Betty Davis in performance is another impediment; the filmmakers use the few clips that are available. But there’s far too much time spent on interviews with music critics or younger musicians inspired by Davis, instead of people who worked with her, which could’ve included not only musicians, but those in the music industry as well. The short sequences of interviews with fellow musicians do offer some insights, but take up only about six minutes of the movie. Difficulties in her career and the death of her father led Davis to withdraw from the world in the early 1980s. But the film doesn’t address how she’s spent her time since then.
Betty Davis herself provides the best summation of her story in the film’s final moments: “For a while in my life I flew high and strong. But the struggle to break through hurt me. Everyone wanted me to be something I wasn’t. In the end, I found I could only be myself.” She at least survived long enough to see her music rediscovered; since 2007, Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records has reissued her entire catalogue, including that never-released fourth album, and an album of her Columbia Records material, indicating an on-going interest in her work. Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different doesn’t reveal much about what makes Davis tick. But it did manage to coax Davis out of retirement to share some of her thoughts. And if it prompts a viewer to seek out her records, that’s another way of keeping her legacy alive.