From 1973-1975, a singer-songwriter named Betty Davis (born Betty Mabry, she kept the Davis surname after divorcing Miles) released three albums of raw, gritty and hyper-sexual funk music. Not only do those albums rank among the best of ’70s funk, but they were decades ahead of their time in terms of Davis’ perspective: A sexually liberated woman who was frank, unfettered and completely in control of her desires and kinks. Naturally, in no small part because she was not only an outspoken woman but an outspoken black woman, few paid attention to her; those who did were frequently scandalized, or at the very least completely confused.
In the ensuing decades, a growing appreciation for her pioneering persona and stone-cold-solid catalog has lifted Davis’ public profile ever so slightly – despite the fact that the singer all but disappeared after an attempted 1976 album fell apart in the face of industry resistance.
Even when reissues of jaw-droppers like her 1973 self-titled and 1974’s They Say I’m Different hit the market to critical raves in 2007, many of her friends, family, and even the backing band on those landmark LPs didn’t know where Betty was or what she was up to.
Which was pretty much the way she wanted it. At least until British filmmaker Phil Cox convinced her (over the course of years — literally) to participate in a documentary that would finally tell not only her story, but reveal what happened to her after she put her Star Trek-meets-Amazonian Funk Queen style to rest in the ’70s.
On Wednesday (May 23) at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn, that documentary, Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different, made its New York City premiere as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. In attendance was Betty’s backing band Funkhaus, several of her longtime friends, the peerless Erykah Badu, and even Swedish pop goddess Robyn.
Prior to the documentary’s screening, Badu took the stage to introduce the film and share a note written by Davis herself, who declined to attend the premiere but wanted to send love and “good vibrations” to the audience.
Before reading the letter, Badu shared that when they talked over the phone the previous night, Davis made a point to say Badu’s name as she uttered each sentence. “You can tell a lot about a bitch by the way she says your name,” Badu offered with a sage smirk to the crowd. “You can also tell a lot about a bitch by the way she cooks rice.”
— Joe Lynch (@branniganlynch) May 24, 2018
Badu then read the letter. “Hello, this is Betty. I’m sorry I could not be with everyone this evening. My life is mysterious at times, even to me, but I am with you all in vibrations and spirit. I hope you enjoy the movie They Say I’m Different. It is something deep and personal to me, I am glad to share it all with you. I send all good vibrations and also love. Pure, good love that we all need and should embrace.” Davis wrapped her letter by thanking Badu, her best friend Joi Gilliam and her backing band (speaking of which, Funkaus played two of her songs after the movie wrapped with Gilliam and Cedrina Shari handling vocals — and even after all these years, her band is still funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter).
As for the documentary, Davis pulled off the rare trick of baring her soul while remaining completely enigmatic – and the director pulled off the deft balancing act of telling the story of a woman who clearly only wants so much of her life unveiled. There are interviews with friends, experts, and those impacted by her work, and of course, plenty of her thick funk slathered over the film.
But Davis remains distant. She reads poetic reflections on her life throughout the film, but she’s sparingly seen on screen, and never in the traditional speaking-to-camera confessional style. We see her hands, her back, her eyes, but it’s impossible from the film to get a mental picture of what Betty Davis in the 2010s looks like – which is probably what she wanted.
There’s a telling moment in the documentary toward its end. Her band Funkhaus sits down around a cell phone to speak with her for the first time in years. The conversation is full of warmth and laughter until one of them bluntly asks “what happened?” so many years ago. A pause, and Davis replies with perfectly feigned aloofness, “Well, it was nice talking to you.”
In short, if you watch They Say I’m Different, you will get a heaping helping of the gritty funk, progressive sexual politics and eye-popping imagery of a criminally under-valued talent from the ’70s. Will you learn why she disappeared from the public eye for decades? You’ll get a taste of that: Friends opine that her beloved father’s death, music industry indifference (much of it based in sexism and racism) and issues with “mental stability” contributed to her lengthy absence.
But in the film, Davis assures us that her spirit is more at peace now – and she makes it equally clear she doesn’t want you leaning in closer to sniff around. So much like the old Hollywood actresses who refused to be photographed after a certain age so that the public would always remember them as they were back when, maybe it’s enough that what we know of Betty Davis are the tantalizing slivers she cares to reveal. And at least now, after decades of silence, she’s giving us word – via this film and that letter to Badu – that she’s doing alright.