Pittsburgh has given birth to myriad artists, but none have been as unique as Betty Davis. The former Betty Mabry moved to New York during the revolutionary ’60s. After befriending Jimi Hendrix, she inspired jazz icon Miles Davis to change his look and music so it would appeal to a younger, bolder audience. She also married him. When the ’70s came along, Davis released her own music, a sexually charged blend of funk and rock that made it clear she was in control.
Then she disappeared.
This weekend, the Black Bottom Film Festival hosts the US premiere of Betty: They Say I’m Different, a beguiling documentary that tells her story through music excerpts, interviews with friends, family, former bandmates and — while she’s never seen clearly on camera — Davis herself. Now residing quietly back in Pittsburgh (her exact home is never specifically revealed), the offstage Betty lives in direct contrast with the woman who belted out songs like “Nasty Gal.” “She really is the Greta Garbo of funk, incredibly private, and is someone who feels no need to return to the limelight or run after publicity — which, in this social media-obsessed world, is pretty unique,” says Phil Cox, the London-based filmmaker who directed the film.
Danielle Maggio, a University of Pittsburgh doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology, has lectured on Davis and became the film’s associate producer after reaching out to Cox. Davis may be reclusive, but Maggio says she maintains the inner strength that has guided her throughout the years. “She is an incredibly powerful woman and has strong opinions about current music, politics and culture,” Maggio says. “Betty is a producer at heart. She has such a great ear and an amazing sense of style.”
The film is also screening at Row House Cinema, in Lawrenceville, on Thu., March 1, and the Regent Square Theater, on Sat., March 3. The latter event follows a workshop and panel discussion at Pittsburgh Filmmakers that afternoon, with a reunion of Funk House, Davis’ original band, after the screening. Cox will be on hand for a Q&A session prior to the premiere.