Monday, January 13, 2020

They Say Betty Davis Was Different, But This Documentary Doesn't Provide Enough Detail

Betty Davis / Baron Wolman / Light in the Attic
(Phil Cox, USA, 2017, 54 minutes)

The angle British filmmaker Phil Cox takes with his Betty Davis documentary, which arrives on DVD this week, is this: she emerged as a funk force in the 1960s, influenced one of the world's great musicians, and then disappeared.

In scholar, culture writer, and Pop Con veteran Oliver Wang's introductory comments, the words recluse and reclusive get a workout (Cox neglects to mention that Wang wrote the liner notes for three Davis reissues). They aren't inaccurate, but they serve as a warning that his subject, who is still very much alive, feels more like a supporting character in her own story than a lead. Try as he might, it's a gap Cox isn't completely able to fill.

Instead, he relies on commentary from friends and associates, excerpts from interviews, music and performance clips, photos and collages, and lyrics that float across the screen. There's enough material to get a taste of her fiery shows, uninhibited lyricism, and arresting fashion sense--silver-sequin hot pants above all--but not enough to fill out the standard running time, since They Say I'm Different clocks in at just under 54 minutes.

Betty in her element / Baron Wolman / Light in the Attic 
Cox traces Davis's be-
ginnings to North Carolina and Pennsyl-
vania where she developed an interest in songwriting (she was living in Pittsburgh when Cox caught up with her). When she was ready to make music her career, she moved to New York. She enrolled in design school, worked as a model, and wrote songs. Did you know she wrote the Chambers Brothers' urban funk anthem "Uptown"? (She was only 20.) That was around the time she met Jimi Hendrix in the Village. Unfortunately, we learn nothing about their meeting, so I couldn't say what went down, but Betty proceeded to turn Miles Davis on to his music.

She met Miles when she went to see him play at the Village Gate. She told him she dug his shoes, and that was that. They got married in 1968. Out went his Italian-made suits and in came silky shirts, over-sized shades, and the other sartorial signifiers of funk. He also incorporated psychedelic-rock elements into his music, though it's possible he might have done so even without Betty's influence. Rock was an all-pervasive thing in the late-1960s, and Miles wasn't the only jazz musician to segue to fusion, though she certainly inspired his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which features her image on the cover and ends with the contemplative "Mademoiselle Mabry" (a reference to her maiden name). They also wrote a song together, the tender ballad "You & I," which appears on her 1975 album, Nasty Gal.

The marriage was a short-lived thing. In the film's voice-over (provided by Kim El), Davis notes that Miles could be violent. Frances Davis, his first wife, makes the same point in Stanley Nelson's documentary, Birth of the Cool, which will be coming to PBS's American Masters in February.

Betty Davis (1973) / Light in the Attic
After their divorce, Betty's recording career began in earnest. Local label Light in the Attic reissued her three albums, Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974), and Nasty Gal in 2007, though no one associated with any of her labels--Island, Columbia, Just Sunshine, etc.--appears in the film. Cox also neglects to mention that Light in the Attic issued her previously unreleased 1976 album, Crashin' from Passion, as Is It Love or Desire? in 2009.

There's also very little information about the recording of these albums. Interviews with more of the participants, like bassist Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone) and guitarist Neal Schon (Sylvester, Journey), would have gone a long way, though it's nice to hear from her still-funky backing band, Funk House, and producer, drummer, and fellow Family Stone player Greg Errico--even if we don't learn much about him. Considering that Errico has played with David Bowie (1974's Diamond Dogs tour), Weather Report, Santana, and the Grateful Dead, that seems like a strange oversight.

As for Davis, she's heard, but she isn't really seen. Though she spoke with Cox, who worked on the film for four years, she's always facing away from the camera. He mostly focuses on her hands. It's her choice, but she provides so few details about her years in exile that she ends up feeling like a ghost haunting a film about a past she doesn't especially care to revisit rather than a full-fledged participant in a comprehensive look at her life.

Wearing lingerie as clothes / Light in the Attic
The extra features include a five-minute interview with Davis, in which Cox filmed her from the back ("No one wants to see an old woman," she says) and a 16-minute inter-
view with the filmmaker. From these features, I learned that it took Cox a long time to gain Davis's trust, and I appre-
ciate his diligence, but I'm not sure he was the best person to tell her story.

When he realized she wouldn't be forthcoming in interviews, for instance, he could have lined up speakers to explain what she's been doing for the past 42 years. It's possible to do this in a respectful, non-salacious way, but he took the path of least resistance, and the film pretty much ends in 1975.

Somehow or another, Betty Davis has managed to keep herself alive since then. That is no small feat, and I'd love to know how she succeeded when so many of her hard-rocking peers, like Janis Joplin, weren't able to pull it off. Did she work a succession of odd jobs, learn a new trade, remarry...? There's a story there, and it's worth telling. Maybe someday somebody will.

MVD releases Betty Davis: They Say I'm Different on DVD Jan 17, 2020.

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