Betty Davis cut three albums of ground breaking funk between 1973 and ‘75. Never a household name, Betty was too raw, too raunchy, too real, too much for the mainstream who wanted her to be someone else and soon cut her adrift, an outcast in a business where others would take her lead and her reward.
For the best part of 40 years Betty Davis has remained hidden away, a virtual recluse, unwilling to be seen or revisit those days, until the persistence of film maker Phil Cox persuaded her to be interviewed for his film, Betty: They Say I’m Different.
Cox didn’t have an easy task creating his film. After years of trying, Betty finally agreed to be interviewed but not to appear directly on camera, instead we see her like the Mystery Guest round on A Question of Sport: an orderly home, a figure sitting on the side of a bed, a hand lighting a stick of incense, a closing of an eye.
With only one sequence of surviving live footage of Betty in hot pants and afro action, and Betty’s enigmatic commentary, the film relies on contributors to provide insight into her story and employs creative animation scenes (a regular occurrence with films like this but these are among the best I’ve seen) to give the music a visual accompaniment.
The resulting hour is deliberately sketchy on facts and figures, instead it paints a broad, poetic portrait of Betty, the viewer left to fill in the gaps best they can, although it does reveal her early days as a songwriter moving from Pittsburgh to New York, her modelling and marriage to Miles Davis in ’68, where she exposed him to the new sounds of Hendrix and Sly and “filled the trash with his suits”, giving his wardrobe a hip makeover and his music a new direction before suffering violence in return. “Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis.”
The Betty Davis of today appears one of quiet contemplation, perhaps finally at peace with herself. Betty was different, and this film goes some way to understanding what she’s been through, while dealing with her story sensitively. Best of all, it brings the focus back to those incredible records and will encourage a whole new legion of listeners. Strap yourself in, just don’t expect any new live shows.
Betty: They Say I’m Different is available to (legitimately) stream here, for a limited time, thanks to Lush Productions: http://player.lush.com/channels/gorilla/tv/betty