Saturday, May 18, 2019

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me

Directed by Olivia Lichtenstein, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me is the story about the life and career of R&B singer who was a vocalist for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and then going into a highly-successful solo career in the late 1970s and early 1980s until a car accident in March of 1982 left him paralyzed. The film is a documentary featuring rare audio interviews with Pendergrass as well as those who knew and worked with him about the journey he took as well as where he was about to go before his tragic accident. The result is a majestic and riveting film from Olivia Lichtenstein.

Before the car accident near his hometown of Philadelphia on March 18, 1982, Teddy Pendergrass was on the cusp of crossover from R&B to a wider audience as he had spent more than a decade being a star as a singer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes before leaving the group in 1975 and starting a solo career two years later to great success and fanfare. The film chronicles Pendergrass’ early life to his monumental comeback at Live Aid on July 13, 1985 where he made a surprise appearance singing with Ashford and Simpson. Featuring hours of audio interviews from Pendergrass as well as archival video interviews, director Olivia Lichtenstein interviews various individuals including Pendergrass’ manager Shep Gordon, songwriters Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff, former Blue Notes vocalist Lloyd Parks, family members, musicians, and many others who knew Pendergrass.

Along with interviews from former girlfriends of Pendergrass, two of his children, and his mother, much of Pendergrass’ early life in the streets of Philadelphia is discussed as it relates to not just life in the inner city but also some of the racism that occur involving the city’s police towards young African-Americans. Avoiding the world of gangs, Pendergrass found solace through music as he would join the Blue Notes as their drummer first and then as a vocalist with Harold Melvin being its leader. While Pendergrass would sing many of the group’s hits from 1972 to 1975 yet Pendergrass and Parks both would reveal that despite their success, Melvin was the one getting a lot of the money where he would stay in lavish hotel suites while the rest of the group stayed in motels earning very little which prompt Pendergrass to leave the group.

The film also touched upon his solo career with his live band in that time all talking about his manager at the time who was also his girlfriend and then was killed in 1977 just as his solo career was starting as many including Pendergrass’ bodyguard believed she was killed by the Black Mafia. The film which include a recreation of the crash that would paralyze Pendergrass with an actor playing him also touches upon some of the dark aspects of the music industry including the way black promoters dealt with black performers. It was around this time that Pendergrass met Shep Gordon who was famous for managing the career of shock-rocker Alice Cooper as many believe Gordon is one of the few honest people in the music industry as he stayed with Pendergrass until his passing in 2010. Gordon would have Pendergrass play venues that would normally attract white audiences as it lead to a successful career including five consecutive platinum albums and a growing audience of both black and white audiences. Many felt that Pendergrass is set to cross-over as the film also feature this rare video/audio recording of a cover of the Lionel Richie-penned song Lady performed at a show in London just a month before the crash.

Lichtenstein also played into the theories of what happened at the car crash as well as the aftermath where Pendergrass did contemplate suicide only for therapy and the love of his family and friends to help him. Even as it would take a simple Folgers commercial to get him to sing again and find the strength where he would make a comeback album in 1984’s Love Language that went gold and a year later his triumphant comeback performance at Live Aid. While the film doesn’t touch upon much of Pendergrass’ career post-Live Aid, it does showcase the legacy he left behind with his band keeping the music alive with a young singer singing with footage of Pendergrass from the past.

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me is a marvelous film from Olivia Lichtenstein. It’s a documentary that play into the life and career of one of the great singers of the 20th Century as well as a man who a fun and charismatic performer that would make women swoon but also be so much more. In the end, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me is a remarkable film from Olivia Lichtenstein.

© thevoid99 2019


Chris said...

As a music fan, I might check out the documentary, to educate myself about Teddy Pendergrass. Thanks for the review.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-You're welcome. I had heard of Teddy Pendergrass and his story but not much about his music. Man, I became a fan of his after watching as he could've been a mega-star as that cover of "Lady" should've put him into the stratosphere.