Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me — screening Friday at the Ritz East and Philadelphia Film Center (formerly the Prince) and selected as the closing-night feature of the Philadelphia Film Festival — is a comprehensive and engrossing documentary that adds dimension to the life of the late singing star. (If you can't make the Film Festival, the documentary will premiere on Showtime.)
Many think of Pendergrass, born here in 1950, as an artist cut down in his prime by a 1982 auto accident. But if that's all you remember about him, said filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein, you're missing the full measure of his inspiring story of persistence, never more evident than in the final years of his life, when he nearly succumbed to depression after the accident that paralyzed him but rallied to regain his voice and his spirit.
"I don't think people remember Teddy as well as they should. He was such an amazing singer, and that's a huge part of his legacy. But the more you know about him, the more his story resonates, and on so many levels. He was a complicated man, with a lot of compartments, and as a filmmaker that's what you want. You want to be able to peel back all of those layers," she said.
Before she became involved in the film, Lichtenstein counted herself among those who knew Pendergrass through his music and a few basic facts about his life — his big hits, the Lincoln Drive crash that paralyzed him. She's a documentary filmmaker based in England (she won a BAFTA for the doc Silent Twins) who one day found herself watching Mike Myers' movie Supermensch, about record producer Shep Gordon, which closed with a segment on Pendergrass (Gordon was one of the few music industry executives who remained loyal to the singer after his accident).
>> READ MORE: Singer Teddy Pendergrass dies at age 59
"There was enough there to make me think, wow, there's a great story there," said Lichtenstein, and the more she dug, the more certain she became that her instincts were correct.
Her thorough research (she visited the city several times from 2014 to 2017 to collect information and conduct interviews) contributes to a compelling narrative, starting with Pendergrass' child prodigy performances in church. He loved Jesus, but also Jackie Wilson, and he started drumming and singing in local clubs, eventually latching on with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in the early 1970s, just as their great hits — "If You Don't Know Me," "The Love I Lost," "Wake Up Everybody" — were defining the Philadelphia Sound and putting Philadelphia International Records on the map — songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff appear in the film — before launching his successful solo career.
But hardship, the film notes, dogged Pendergrass throughout his life. He was raised by a single mother and met his father, Jesse, for the first time only a few days before Jesse was murdered in 1962. Pendergrass spent time in juvenile detention after a wrongful arrest as a teen, and was harassed by Philadelphia police when he became a star.
If You Don't Know Me revisits the execution-style murder in April 1974 of his first manager, Taaz Lang, a case that was never solved, though the film recounts speculation that the crime was linked to organized crime elements operating on the margins of the music industry.
When Gordon, who is featured prominently, took over management of Pendergrass' career, he sought and received FBI protection for the singer. He also accented Pendergrass' sex appeal, arranging a series of ladies-only concert tours that cemented the singer's status as a major star. There is insight into Pendergrass' musical style from Gordon, Gamble, Huff, and also Questlove, who went to school near 309 S. Broad St., the home of Philadelphia International Records, which produced Pendergrass' big hits
"What's great about Questlove, apart from the fact that he's a gifted talker, which is great for me, is that he is part of the story, too, as so many people are in the film. He's not just a commentator, but a witness," she said.
The film includes a rare recording of Pendergrass performing Lionel Richie's "Lady" live in London, the kind of song and performance that made Pendergrass an international phenomenon. His accident occurred just a few weeks later, and though the film (quoting close family members) is candid about his deep depression and suicidal impulses, it also candid about his spiritual recovery. In the film, psychiatrist Dan Gottlieb, himself a quadriplegic, recounts the uniquely informed counseling he gave Pendergrass during the most desperate days.
"It's really a tale of triumph. Triumph over really formidable adversity, in so many ways. Triumph of love. Teddy felt that from his friends and family, and it turned him around."