Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different – the new biopic that delivers a big emotional punch
Matt Mak reviews the UK exclusive extended version of Betty: They Say I’m Different – the new biopic on pioneering Queen of Funk, Betty Davis.
Funk/R&B pioneer Betty Davis always did things her own, unique way; and fittingly, the same can be said of veteran filmmaker Phil Cox‘s new documentary on her life, Betty: They Say I’m Different.
This beautifully-made, touching and poetic piece is no ordinary biopic. Unexpectedly nuanced and skilfully constructed, it packs a big emotional punch.
Cox and his producers spent two years getting to know the elusive icon and gaining her trust enough for her to share her story with the world.
This is no mean feat when it comes to a woman who virtually dropped off the face of the earth in the late 1970s, and who largely estranged herself from even her closest friends and family. Cox himself describes the journey as being “a long, indie road to making a film”. The process has clearly forged a bond that persists after the completion of the film, and which has allowed Betty to really open up for the first time about her life, her career, and why she left it all behind her.
What is delivered is a poignant film that touches on issues of bereavement, depression and abuse – always with a great tenderness and respect. This wasn’t perhaps the story that Cox expected to make from the outset, but it is a compelling and deeply affecting one.
The film unfolds in bold, deliberate strokes and keeps things personal. Excised is interview footage with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana that some may have seen snippets of in earlier teasers for the film. Such content is left on the cutting room floor in favour of contributions from the people who knew and loved her best – family, friends, and former bandmates, who feature in a deeply moving scene in which they speak to Betty (by phone) for the first time in decades.
Cox is aware that this focus on the personal might confound the expectations of some viewers. “I think it is a film that may disappoint some hard core fans who want hard facts and to see famous folks,” he tells me. “But in the end, I felt the best way was to make a lyrical and impressionistic film that allowed you to feel the inner person that is Betty, and not just feature loads of dates and talking heads. Betty never really allowed this film to be heavy on facts either. Not by refusing any information, but more by revealing a poetic insight into her life and her clear spirituality”.
Cox needn’t worry – his daring creative choices lead to a film that is much more artistically rich, personal and emotionally resonant than the average biopic.
Betty‘s life story is recounted in a sometimes dreamlike quality with use of carefully structured visual and sound design, which conveys much of the emotional beats of the movie almost subliminally. There are some stunning uses of the cinematic canvas with stunning visual compositions and specially created art that make this documentary one to ideally be viewed in theatres.
There are plenty of moments to excite that “hard core music fan”, including an appearance by Greg Errico, the former Sly and the Family Stone drummer who played on and produced Betty‘s first album, 1973’s Betty Davis. This leads to a jaw-dropping moment in which he rummages through his seemingly vast archive and re-discovers the original recording of a take from one of their studio sessions – on compact cassette tape, no less.
And very excitingly, we are treated to recently discovered and restored 16mm film footage of Betty performing live in spectacular full colour that see fans open-mouthed in awe, and which is worth the price of entry alone.
But fundamentally, this is a story about Betty the woman. Told largely in her own words via a creative working of her lyrics, interviews and conversations with the filmmakers, we discover a much more sensitive and spiritual side than some might expect from the vivacious performer. Overall, we discover someone irrepressibly true to herself and her spirituality (represented here at times by repeated mentions of her spirit-animal, the crow).
Indeed, it seems that Betty was in many ways rather too true to herself for an era not ready to accept such powerful and uninhibited black woman. Carlos Santana once said, “She was the first Madonna, but Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis” – and boy, was he was right. But despite being an accomplished songwriter and a peerless performer, she was poorly served by a music industry that still owes her a great deal.
Betty achieved an iconic status in spite of their hang-ups, by sheer force of a great talent that could out-Funk the male titans of the form.
But as Cox‘s film shows, running battles with the industry left Betty demoralised and frustrated; and with great sensitivity, we are shown how such frustrations, the emotional pain of being violently abused by someone she loved (Miles Davis), and the suffering of tragic personal losses, eventually came to threaten her emotional well-being. The world simply didn’t, and still doesn’t, deserve someone like Betty.
Betty herself remains elusive and mysterious to the end. Appearing in the film as a visual ‘presence‘ and via the creative voice over (as recounted by hand-picked voice-over artist Kim El, who is excellent) she tells us of her childhood years in Pittsburgh, of her love of her father and grief over losing him, of her spirit guide Crow (Betty is part-Cherokee, as was her friend Jimi Hendrix), of her passion for music, and of the difficulties and pain she has endured. Despite all the adversity in her life, she remains a good-humoured, positive and deeply spiritual person – one further testament to her indomitably.
She chose not be shown in filmed straight on in the film, though there are glimpses of her eye and hands, and she does appear in silhouette for the pre-recorded Q&A session included at the end of the theatrical presentation. Here, she tells us that she doesn’t want to be shown on screen as “no one wants to see an old woman” – and while we could not agree with this less, Cox faithfully respects her wishes.
Certainly this maintains the mystique of a woman who influenced music so profoundly. But above all, this moment like so many in the film leaves you with a desperate desire to give her a big hug and tell her how wonderful she is.
This film also makes you feel compelled to play the hell out of her entire back catalogue at the soonest opportunity – because when all is said and done, Betty Davis is still and will always be the Queen of Funk, and she remains magnificent. Hearing her music erupt out of the powerful cinema sound system was enough to put up the hairs on the back of my neck. Some deeply fanboyish fist-pumping my have occurred, I have to admit.
This is a film that will touch the hearts of Funkateers, music fans and more casual viewers alike. Certainly, it is one to bring together the global Family Funk in celebration of their mysterious, long-lost Queen, in solidarity with her in her struggles as well as her successes, and in joy at Cox‘s magnificent achievement in bringing her back to us in such a heartfelt way. It is long past time for Betty to be recognised for her role in the story of music, and in breaking the boundaries for female performers and black women especially, as well as being an inspiration to a great many men, myself included.
The pre-recorded Q&A session combines footage from multiple premiere screenings of the film in both the US and the UK, and it’s incredibly touching to see Erykah Badu so moved to realise that Betty has mentioned her in an open letter written to the audience there. Neneh Cherry also speaks to an audience in London, citing the influence Betty Davis had on her musical development and her career and, quite rightly pointing out that Betty deserves to be seen in no one’s shadow – least of all ex-husband Miles Davis.
It was also nice to see the late British graphic artist and community activist Jon Daniel‘s artwork featured in these Q&As and his name listed in the credits. Jon was a wonderful man, a talented artist, and someone I am honoured to have called a friend.
Betty: They Say I’m Different is available to stream for fee in the UK via online platform Lush for the next few months (link below), with a BBC screening due to be aired next year. Cox also tells me there is a DVD release scheduled for September 2018 which will feature additional material and commentaries.
But this is a film with a stunning visual composition that has been made for, and should ideally be enjoyed on, the big screen. The film is on widespread international release and I definitely recommend that you take any opportunity to see it and, indeed, petition your local cinema to screen it.
Thanks to Phil Cox and Robert Brenner for providing these rare photos of Betty from the 1970s.
You can watch the move here…