"Clothes were an expression of who we were, but the nights, the nights were where I came alive." - Betty Davis
Music documentaries are easy to make but hard to do well. Betty: They Say I Am Different proves to be the latter: a well-made documentary about a fascinating, under-examined subject: 1970's funk music pioneer Betty Davis. Frequently hailed as ahead of her time, Betty was a unique voice in soul music, and director Phil Cox does her legacy proud.
Born in North Carolina, the young Betty Davis wrote songs at a young age, often performing for her family and friends. She found her way to New York City, attending the Fashion Institute of Technology. Betty quickly became a steady working fashion model and continued to write songs. Success soon came to Betty as the Chambers Brothers recorded her song "Uptown" (recently featured in Questlove's brilliant documentary Summer of Soul).
Accepted as a songwriter, Betty dove head first into the music scene, befriending Jim Hendrix and members of Sly and the Family Stone. She married the legendary Jazz musician Miles Davis and helped push his sound (and fashion sense) into the modern era. Miles dropped the stuffy suits and formal jazz structures for a more unrestrained, wilder sound. They influenced and encouraged each other to take their art into new territory.
Betty soon became a funk singer in her own right. Her stage shows were wild, and her sound was drop-dead funky. Betty was confident in her sexually charged stage persona and unafraid to push the envelope with her lyrics. The record labels tried to soften her style and pull back her image for a broader, more mainstream audience. But Betty remained true to herself. Instead of taming her sound and image, she dropped out of the music business. In fact, she all but disappeared - for almost 35 years.
Director Phil Cox employs a restrained, almost elegant visual style that confidently balances Betty's wild music and fashion sense. Lovely footage of flowers and birds (crows are Betty's favorite) play out as Betty's present-day voice relates her story. Interviews with friends and music industry execs tell the story of a creative force in the biz that helped pave the way for Madonna, Prince, and other artists that would come after her.
Coming in at just under an hour (refreshing in an era when streaming services prefer to drag out every possible subject into a "limited series"), Betty Davis: They Say I'm Different is a vibrant documentary about a genuinely underrated artist. (B)
Betty: They Say I'm Different (2017)
Directed By Phil Cox
Starring Betty Davis, Miles Davis, Oliver Wang, Greg Errico, Winona Williams, Militia Vox