It was interesting watching this documentary about Betty Davis on the same day that Aretha Franklin passed away, as it highlighted how differently their careers have gone.
The Queen of Soul, of course, had several hits, became a household name, and sang for the Obamas at the White House. She is justly revered by millions of people worldwide.
Betty Davis, on the other hand, is probably better known for being Miles Davis's wife and for her wild garb on the cover of her album They Say I'm Different than for her libidinous funk opuses and sublimely raunchy singing. Not to put Davis on the same level as Franklin, but the discrepancy of their public images and critical assessments is starker than it should be.
Phil Cox's low-budget documentary, Betty: They Say I'm Different, strives over its too-brief 53 minutes to build a case for its subject's canonization, although the dearth of live footage of Davis and her stellar bands hinders things. That said, Betty is crucial to any fan who desires a deeper understanding of this pioneering female funk auteur who, among other things, played a large role in changing Miles Davis's sartorial and musical directions—even as she endured his abusive behavior.
The film relies heavily on Betty Davis's taped, off-camera recitations of what appear to be diary entries, in which the metaphor of a black crow representing the catalyst that spurred her creativity and desire to be different recurs. We never get a literal full-on look at the protagonist. Is this strategy due to vanity or secrecy?
Whatever the case, it deviates greatly from what we know of Davis's flamboyant persona during her peak fashion and music years in the 1960s and '70s, back when she sported silver lamé hot pants, knee-high boots, risqué lingerie, and a big Afro. As a critic in Penthouse circa 1976 put it, "Seeing Betty Davis for the first time is like seeing your first X-rated movie, when you were expecting Walt Disney."
Part of Betty's mission is to explain how and why she vanished from the public eye and ear for nearly four decades, moving from New York City to her home in Pittsburgh and remaining out of public consciousness until Seattle label Light in the Attic began reissuing her small but potent catalog in 2007. One relative hints that Davis never rebounded from her father's death. When her old bandmates call her and ask why she vanished, she frustratingly deflects the question.
Betty really jolts to life whenever Davis's songs—extraordinarily tight, frictional funk jams that get you loose—hit the soundtrack. In the 1970s, she was one of the few black women writing her own songs and leading her own band, but the industry and the world just weren't ready to deal with that much sexual and creative independence in a female musician. However, Davis's bold example continues to influence women who seek to fly their freak flags in the face of music-biz sexism.