by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Finally, someone has done a film about one of the greatest soul singers to ever breathe into a mic, the late great Teddy Pendergrass. Olivia Lichtenstein’s film, “Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me,” is definitely a must see for all ‘70 babies, star children and flower children. This film documents the ups and downs of being a trailblazing Black superstar and sex symbol in the late ‘70s.
Sex, murder, and mayhem are all ingredients that created a god, as well as they hastened his fall from the mountaintop, described by people who were there. Check out Olivia Lichtenstein’s Q&A on her screening at the SF Black Film Fest on Friday, June 14, 6 p.m., at the FilmMore Grand Theater (the former Yoshi’s) at 1330B Fillmore in San Francisco
M.O.I. JR: What made you want to do a documentary on the life of Teddy Pendergrass?
Olivia: I’ve always been a fan of soul music and had recently started listening again to Teddy’s music. Then, one day, I saw the documentary, “Supermensch: the Legend of Shep Gordon.” Shep was an über manager who had managed a fleet of huge stars, Teddy among them, and there was a couple of minutes in the film about Teddy.
I realized that I didn’t know Teddy’s story and I had a sudden and powerful sense that I had to make a film to tell it. I felt that Teddy wasn’t recognized and remembered as well as he should be and that there was an extraordinary tale here not just of a musical talent, but also of tremendous triumph over adversity – his story feels almost Shakespearian.
I felt that Teddy wasn’t recognized and remembered as well as he should be and that there was an extraordinary tale here not just of a musical talent, but also of tremendous triumph over adversity – his story feels almost Shakespearean.
M.O.I. JR: In your opinion, what made Teddy an exceptional singer?
Olivia: Teddy had a remarkable and distinctive voice – husky, with a bit of a growl to it. He was also unbelievably handsome and charismatic. More than that, though, he seemed to sing with every cell of his body, his whole being went into the performance. Shep Gordon told me once that when he listened to Teddy, he felt that Teddy was almost a vessel, that a higher power came through him like you see in church at times.
M.O.I. JR: How did you feel hearing about the relationship among Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who included Teddy?
Olivia: There are so many things that you discover when making a film about someone – human beings and their relationships are complex and Teddy, by all accounts, was a highly complicated man. Disagreements amongst band members are rife and the handling of finances can often be unfair.
I think the main discovery here was the effect on Teddy’s career of his having been the lead singer of Harold Melvyn and the Blue Notes, yet not having his name out front. This led to all sorts of confusion with people assuming he was Harold and, even today, the name Teddy Pendergrass doesn’t have the recognition it deserves because of this.
M.O.I. JR: How does it feel as a documentary filmmaker to have to discuss the non-glamorous side of Teddy such as when you discussed the murder of Taaz, the incident that led him to be paralyzed, and his suicidal thoughts?
Olivia: The job of a documentary filmmaker is to be a truth-seeker and, as such, you can’t shy away from the difficult areas. It’s always awkward asking the difficult questions, but you have a responsibility to your audience to ask the questions that they would like to hear answered. I was fortunate that the contributors to this film were open and ready to talk – it was time to tell this story and many of them felt that if they didn’t speak now, when would they?
M.O.I. JR: In such a racialized country as the U.S., in such times as the ‘70s, how do you tell the true complexities of a Black man’s plight without being Black?
Olivia: Many of the people who appear in the film said to me that it needed an outsider to come in and make it. It is the job of a documentary filmmaker to observe and seek to understand and, usefully, I had no vested interest, no axe to grind.
I am myself the member of a minority group (Jewish) that attracts racism and I spent the first seven years of my life in Apartheid South Africa and (then) Southern Rhodesia, where my father was very active in the anti-apartheid movement. I have always had an acute awareness of the iniquity of racism and felt from the onset that the backdrop and texture of this film had to be woven in the context of the civil rights movement and the unique African American experience. I hope I managed to do justice to this.
M.O.I. JR: Did you rely heavily on Teddy’s 60 autobiographical tapes to tell his story? How were they used? And are they available to the public?
Olivia: I always wanted to find a way to let Teddy tell some of his story himself and the tapes were very useful for this as he was able to comment when necessary and help to drive the narrative. They helped to give him a real presence in the film.
Unfortunately, the quality of the recording was very poor and at one time, I thought that we might not be able to use them and I considered using an actor. But, it felt very important that we hear his voice, however bad the recording and by putting the words on screen, we could ensure that people would understand what he was saying.
M.O.I. JR: How does Teddy’s family feel about the documentary?
Olivia: The family are very pleased with the film. They are happy that Teddy is getting the recognition he so richly deserved and that something has been done to preserve his legacy.
M.O.I. JR: Are you working on any other documentaries or films?
Olivia: Yes, always! I have a couple of projects in the pipeline that I am producing on and I’m looking for a new project to direct myself. Any ideas, let me know!
M.O.I. JR: How can people stay in touch with you?
Olivia: You can find me on twitter and instagram at @olichtenstein.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.