The music industry is filled with groundbreaking acts that leave way too quickly. From Jim Morrison to Amy Winehouse, there have been a number of great musicians whose lives were cut too short. Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different is the story of a funk pioneer whose career ended far sooner than it should have. Davis’s story is just as tragic and sinister, if for entirely different reasons.
They Say I’m Different is a documentary about the former wife of jazz legend Miles Davis. Betty Davis seemed primed for mainstream success in 1975. Island Records were set to give Davis’s third record Nasty Gal a major push. Unfortunately, radio stations wanted nothing to do with the sexually frank and raw lyrics on the album. Davis never got the expected airplay. That was the closest Davis came to making it big on the national stage. She disappeared shortly after.
Director Philip Cox does a wonderful job of explaining Davis’s importance to music. This is done through a series of interviews with those who were closest to the singer before she vanished. More than just standard talking heads, the interviews are done with the subjects in natural environments. This adds a natural air to that is not always found in similar documentaries. The friends of Davis are not just talking about a subject; they are speaking about a person they care for.
The film also does a great job of going into what Davis was doing before she disappeared. This includes stills and possibly the only concert footage there is of the singer. They Say I’m Different is also filled with music from the time. It is not just the music of Betty Davis that is heard. The documentary shows how Davis influenced her husband through her friendships with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. It is not just a standard musical doc that says someone is a trailblazer followed up with tenuous connections. The movie shows how and through who Davis was able to change the industry.
The highlight of They Say I’m Different is an interview with the subject. Keeping with the mystery of Davis, the documentary rarely shows the reclusive singer. While the singer’s voice is heard throughout the narrative, she is only shown one time. It adds to the mystery of the entertainer who was able to shock and amaze her contemporaries.
As interesting as the conversations with Davis are, the documentary does run short. There is something to be said for not padding the time and sticking to the what is most important. The problem is, They Said I’m Different is over so quickly, it is hard not to be disappointed. While the documentary does a great job of showing what Davis did and how respected she is by her peers, it is more informational than anything else. The audience is not able to connect on any other level. While this does not lessen the power of the documentary, it is more of a presentation than an interesting story.
Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different is the story of how the singer almost found fame before her disappearance. Using interviews, animation, and rare footage, the documentary explains why and how Davis is so important to music. The short length also gives a dryness to what should be a very interesting story. Music fans will be entertained by the story being told; others may be turned off by the low entertainment value.