“People always talk about Betty as the wife of Miles Davis when I’d like to think that Miles Davis was more likely the wife of Betty.”
Neneh Cherry’s intro at the recent UK premiere of ‘Betty – They Say I’m Different’ perfectly captures the influence and spirit of one of the greatest funk musicians of all time. A raw, uncompromising talent who’s never gained the legendary status she deserves.
Film-maker Phil Cox’s documentary aims to bring Betty firmly back into public consciousness by shedding light on the pioneering yet enigmatic songwriter and performer who withdrew from the spotlight and from herself in 1979.
Betty was prolific at a time when both industry and mainstream weren’t quite ready to receive her. During a three album spell, she set a standard light years ahead of her peers; outraunching Madonna, outfunking Prince and outstrutting Beyonce. Forty years on, Betty relays her own story on camera for the first time. Just don’t come into this expecting straight answers. As with her career, Betty handles matters strictly on her own terms. She doesn’t do interviews so we encounter her through a series of voiceovers, poetry and symbolism during the documentary’s fifty-two minutes’ run time.
Her early years, leading up to her marriage to Miles Davis in 1968, are well handled if lacking a little depth. Betty met Miles in 1967 after watching him perform at the Blue Note. She didn’t really know who he was; didn’t think much of his music or his suit.
“But I loved his shoes.”
They married a year later. She left him within two. Already a prolific songwriter, it was Miles who encouraged her to sing. Instead of trading off her husband’s name, she tracked down Greg Errico (of Sly & the Family Stone) and asked him to produce her music, eventually releasing three of the funkiest albums you’ll ever hear between 1973 and 1975. Betty sung, wrote the songs and directed the players. As raw and electric as Jimi, as funky and loose as Sly; she should have enjoyed equal success. But this wasn’t a time of equals and Betty was a black woman.
So sexually charged were her lyrics that her records were banned from radio play. The media constantly compared her to men – Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and Sly Stone. Betty refused such flattering comparisons. She recounts how she was bounced from record labels, a victim of “white men behind desks telling me to change.” Exhausting her career options, she quit the music business. She quit Betty too. The pressure of the industry combined with her stage and private personas being so far apart contributing to a mental breakdown. This gulf between person and performer is a fascinating proposition, but without the right talking heads to flesh it out we’re left without a satisfactory understanding of how this could happen to such a supremely confident and talented artist.
Considering the wealth of talent that must have been up for offering testimony to Betty’s talent and lasting importance, the film is bereft of well-known faces. While the film’s purpose is to celebrate and remember Betty and her legacy, you’d expect some of the funk, pop and soul names that followed her to speak out for Betty’s genius. Help keep the flame burning.
Instead, it’s left mainly to Betty’s old friends, bandmates and producers to offer insights. There are some nice anecdotes but since most of them haven’t seen Betty in over thirty years there’s very little insight on offer. There are quite a few randoms too. Countless times we’re reminded of Betty’s jaw-dropping, raucous performances, yet very little film footage survives. At one point, a DJ plays a vinyl recording of an interview Betty gave at the peak of her career such are the scraps of surviving testimony.
A touching scene sees her bandmates assemble for the first time since 1979 to call Betty (having finally been given her number). They gently encourage her to record some new music or to play with them again. They offer to pick her up. They inform her that she doesn’t even need a record label anymore because of social media. Of course, Betty politely declines. The call is heartbreakingly short and Betty lacks emotion. Like her refusal to compromise with the record producers back in the 70s, Betty’s still living solely on Betty’s terms.
That signature sound
The biggest omission in this film is a sense or even a celebration of Betty’s signature sound. We watch music documentaries because we love the artist and want to learn more about their inspirations and because we want to discover the real person. Betty’s refusal to play ball means that we don’t get satisfactory answers to the music or to the woman. It’s still a fascinating watch, especially for newcomers to her music and Phil Cox must be commended for celebrating Betty and encouraging more people to discover her. He’s done well to make a film out of limited fresh material and an unconventional protagonist who doesn’t venture too close to the darkness of her own downfall.
Parallels – Lewis Taylor
Betty’s story has parallels with one of my favourite musicians of the 90s (and still now): Lewis Taylor. Similarly, the deeply talented singer/songwriter dropped out of the music business after having some kind of a breakdown. A rare interview Lewis gave two years ago suggested that his withdrawal from the limelight was brought about by both music industry pressure and the conflict between his true self and the smooth, soulful stage persona. His identity had been steadily eroded by ego and what he called his ability for ‘mimcry’.
Maybe Betty also lost too much of herself to a funk persona that was far removed from her real self?
To sample a few of Betty’s tracks, along with some other funk feminists, listen:
For screening info on the Betty Davis documentary, check: http://www.nastygalmovie.com/