You would need a heart of stone to hear the late soul singer Teddy Pendergrass without being thrilled – or hear of his personal ordeal without being moved. This documentary tells his story respectfully and in detail, but something doesn’t quite work.
Having started with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Pendergrass left that band in 1977 and embarked on a staggering solo career, earning a string of platinum discs: an impossibly handsome, virile man with a rich and sensuous voice. Then a car accident in 1982 left him quadriplegic. A therapist talked him out of ending his own life, helped by his children and his formidable churchgoing mother, and Pendergrass came back with more hit records and a moving appearance at Live Aid in Philadelphia, singing from his wheelchair.
This sounds like an uplifting Hollywood movie – and may yet be. There is a darker side to the story, though, which this documentary can’t quite absorb or accommodate, because of the need to deal with Pendergrass’s courageous recovery in a suitably celebratory way. It is candid about the African American music scene in Philadelphia being riddled with gangsters. There were ugly scenes when Teddy broke with Melvin, and nasty threats and counter-threats abounded.
In 1977, Teddy’s girlfriend and manager Taaz Lang was murdered; the case remains unsolved to this day. A film in the “true crime” vein might have made this killing the whole point and focus of the documentary, especially as Teddy had enemies, too. Did someone tamper with the brakes on his car on the night of his terrible accident?
The murky world of organised crime in pop music is a real issue, but Pendergrass’s inspirational comeback story forces a different narrative arc on the film, leaving questions unanswered. It’s a remarkable story, but more complicated than this makes it sound.
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