Friday, January 17, 2020

Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different

Major record labels have made some baffling decisions. A case in point would be their refusal to sign funk firebrand Betty Davis to a long-term contract, because her performance persona was too overtly sexual. Seriously, they couldn’t figure out how to market sex? Her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna. Prince before Prince.” Yes, that Miles Davis. Her tenure in the public spotlight was limited, but she made quite an impression on listeners during that time. Phil Cox tries to track down the long-off-the-radar Davis in Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different, which releases today on DVD.

Betty Mabry came from Pittsburgh to New York hoping to forge a musical career, but she initially paid the bills as a model. It wasn’t such a bad day job, since it gave her access to the world of movers and shakers. She was not so much into jazz, but jazz trumpeters were another story. For a while she was romantically linked to Hugh Masekela (strangely overlooked in Cox’s film), who produced her Columbia 45 sessions, before her whirlwind romance and stormy marriage with Miles Davis.

Cox (with the help of experts like musician Greg Tate) fully explores her role as the inspiration and catalyst for Miles Davis’s turn towards electric fusion, but they do not let him overshadow her own music. It is definitely funky and highly sexualized, even by today’s standards. Frankly, it seems strange that she never developed a wider cult audience or became a significant source of memes. Her song “Nasty Gal” predated Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” by at least a decade and it was considerably nastier. Instead, her music is currently available on reissues from the specialized collectors’ label, A Light in the Attic.

They Say is only fifty-four minutes, but it is easy to see why it came in on the short end of the spectrum. One presumes Cox was hoping for a third act comeback, much in the tradition of Searching for Sugar Man, but Davis makes it abundantly clear that is not about to happen. In fact, we only sort of see Davis in a DVD extra interview, throughout which Cox dutifully shoots her from the back.

So no, there’s not a lot of crowd-pleasing drama going on here, but at least Davis gets her overdue ovation. We can’t ask much more from Cox, because he lets us hear from Davis directly and groove to her music at length. He does pretty well by his subject and the audience, incorporating some cool archival footage, distinctive animated interludes, and cinematic aerial buffer shots. Fans of funk, R&B, and jazz should definitely check it out to fill in some gaps their musical picture of the 1970s. Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different releases today on DVD, from MVD.