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Pittsburgher Betty Davis’ past as gritty funk pioneer recalled in new doc

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'Betty Davis -- They Say I'm Different' is a documentary about the pioneering funk star who left the industry and returned to Pittsburgh in the 1970s.

Betty Davis titled her 1974 album, “They Say I’m Different.” If anything, it’s a massive understatement.

She was so far ahead of her time, that she’s only really being appreciated now. After three albums of the rawest, nastiest funk, marriage to Miles Davis — changing his style and sound completely — friendship with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and songs written for The Chambers Brothers and The Commodores, Betty Davis disappeared.

In the late ’70s, she went back home to Pittsburgh, where she was raised, voluntarily leaving the spotlight forever. She still lives here, declining all attempts at contact, until London-based filmmaker Phil Cox and his producers came calling.

The result was the documentary “Betty — They Say I’m Different,” getting its Pittsburgh premiere this weekend at the Black Bottom Film Festival, Downtown. Another screening will be held March 1 at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville.

“In 2012, I was at Sundance with a film and I was looking for new project to embark on,” Cox says. “I was introduced to Betty’s music and the fact that she had ‘disappeared.’ Betty’s music is not ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’; it is raunchy and in your face. … I guess I was drawn to her music not because I am a funk fan, but because I sensed the sheer authenticity in that voice.

“Also, I learned of the mixed and even hostile reception she received in the ’70s. When everyone was polarizing behind group identities, the entrenched establishment and opposing revolutionary and civil rights causes, Betty was out there alone, a total extreme maverick black artist, producing, writing, performing and keeping it personal.”

She wasn’t looking to tell her story to anyone.

“I was intrigued by the fact that for 35 plus years this pioneering, clearly bold and fearless woman had for some reason ‘stepped out,’ ” Cox says. “To find her was not easy — our team at the small indie London-based production company Native Voice Films set to introducing ourselves to some of the gatekeepers who have protected Betty over the last decades. Betty lives on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in a very simple manner, with no mobile phone or Internet. After some months we managed to make phone contact with her, but it was a further two years before she agreed to meet us!”

Betty and Miles

The marriage to Miles Davis didn’t last, and the film hints at his violent, abusive tendencies. But his most epochal and controversial transformation — from jazz and sharp Italian suits to the futuristic jazz-funk fusion of “Bitches Brew” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro” — coincided with their relationship.

Betty Davis made three albums of scorching, raunchy funk-rock that make Rick James sound like Lawrence Welk, and toured hard. Then she walked away from it all.

“I think Betty in the early 1980s faced a multitude of obstacles in her music life and personal life — all at a time when she also found herself alone,” Cox says. “After she had given so much to her work, alongside issues with Miles, the death of her father, being told to compromise by industry execs and battling some ill health, she just decided to step out. When Betty makes a decision it is total and complete — there is no going back.”

Abstract approach

The mystery of Betty Davis was compounded by the lack of an archive — hardly any film footage or interviews of her exist. There’s just the music.

So a more abstract, poetic approach was necessary.

“Eventually, I realized that through the years of our collected phone recordings, her song lyrics and interviews we had done, there were recurring motifs and poetic paths that could be written out from her own words and visualised cinematically,” Cox says.

“My starting point was Betty telling me of the little bird that used to sit outside her window and sing when she was a girl, the orange-red cardinal, and how this bird grew into ‘Crow’ — black Crow — which is a metaphor for her inner lyrical spirit and the central recurring motif in the film.”

“Betty is an incredibly spiritual person — Crow is her spiritual animal and she is proud of her part Cherokee heritage — and this influence, along with major events that took place on Mount Fuji in Japan, were the visual building blocks of putting her personal narrative together cinematically.”

Images of flowers blooming and dying also recur constantly in the film.

“Betty is very into certain flowers and specific colors — so these became also motifs for her inner private consciousness, and represent moments in her life of bloom and withdrawal,” Cox says.

“Betty, perhaps like all of us, has this split of the public and the private persona. In her case, the public persona became this bombastic pioneering artist called ‘Nasty Gal’ — claimed and lauded by so many. Hidden away inside there was still the little girl … who just wanted to write.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Black Bottom Film Festival

The second annual Black Bottom Film Festival is subtitled “Cinema for the Soul.”

The film festival — Feb. 23 to 25 at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center — celebrates African American cinema, from classics to contemporary movies.

The mission of the festival is to “showcase movies that focus on the recurring themes of spirituality, race, family conflict, honor, duty and working-class struggle, themes ever-present in August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle plays,” according to the event’s website.

Featured films include:

On Feb. 23: “Tale of Four,” directed by Gabourey Sidibe, and “Love Jones”

Feb. 24: “Quiet Soldier,” about little-known Pittsburgh attorney and activist Wendell Grimkie Freeland; “Odds Against Tomorrow,” starring and produced by Harry Belafonte; “Cinderella Man,” starring Russell Crowe, and “Double Play,” starring Lennie James and Louis Gossett Jr.

Feb. 25: “Magnificent Life of Charlie,” “Last Life” and “Betty Davis — They Say I’m Different.”

Admission is by day pass for $25, or weekend pass for $55

Details: 412-456-6666 or trustarts.org

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