‘Considerably superior’: Teddy Pendergrass documentary closes out Philadelphia Film Festival

The film is a success, for two reasons: It gets across Pendergrass’ unique appeal, and it’s full of great stories by musical old timers and the singer’s other collaborators.

Directed by South African-British filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein, Pendergrass’ film chronicles his childhood in 1950s North Philly to his early days in the Philadelphia International Records lineup, both with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes – and later as a successful solo artist.

The film does a great delivery of Pendergrass’ considerable talent and sex appeal, as demonstrated in the concerts he would perform in his heyday that were women-only. The film also follows the car accident on Lincoln Drive in 1982 that rendered the singer a quadriplegic, as well as his subsequent comeback, which included a performance on the Philadelphia end of Live Aid in 1985. Of the two movies I saw last week that culminate in the subject’s triumphant performance at Live Aid, Teddy Pendergrass is considerably superior to Bohemian Rhapsody.

We’re told the singer’s story through archival footage, as well as talking-head interviews with Pendergrass’ friends, classmates, bandmates, and even Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff themselves, who finish each other’s sentences on more than one occasion. The singer’s family is also represented, including his mother, Ida, who celebrated her 100th birthday this year. We even hear from the woman – who happens to be transgender- who was in the car with Pendergrass at the time of his accident.

The only real misstep in the film? It regularly illustrates events that took place in the 1970s and ’80s, with establishing shots that are clearly of today’s Philly skyline. And at one point, we see someone watching Pendergrass footage from the ’80s, on what’s obviously a flat-screen TV of modern vintage.

When I first heard that Teddy Pendergrass was the closing night film at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, a thought occurred to me: Wasn’t there already a Pendergrass doc, about five years ago?

Turns out I was wrong – I’d been thinking of Supermensch, Mike Myers’ 2013 documentary about longtime showbiz manager Shep Gordon. Pendergrass’ was Gordon’s client, and that doc consisted of a long section about Pendergrass’ life and career. And it turns out the new film’s origins lie in that movie as well.

Lichtenstein, the director, told me before the screening that she saw Supermensch, and that “I’ve always loved Teddy Pendergrass, and I didn’t realize that was his story and that was what happened to him. So I had one of those moments, when I realized, ‘I have to make a film about this guy, I was just compelled to do it, really. Teddy was such a complicated guy, and it was such an interesting story, that there was more than enough for two films, to be honest.”

She added that she grew up listening to Gamble and Huff music, and that she wanted Philadelphia to be “a kind of character in the film.”

The film has been picked up by Showtime. And after it screened Friday night, Pendergrass’ Teddy Bear Orchestra reunited on stage – complete with several members who had been seen in the movie- and played a few songs.

This year’s Philadelphia Film Festival actually continued through the weekend despite the “closing night” taking place on Friday. The fest featured an eclectic lineup of more than 100 films, including Oscar contenders, strong documentaries, and foreign films, including a “Nordic Voices” section. It’s the first edition of the festival following the Prince Theater’s recent renaming as the Philadelphia Film Center.

This year’s PFF featured some Oscar contenders – Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, Steve McQueen’s Widows, and Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased – that met expectations, and others, most notably Peter Hedges’ Ben is Back, that were disappointments.

But the fest also featured some outstanding under-the-radar stuff, such as Sandi Tan’s astonishing documentary Shirkers, which told the story of how the Singapore native fulfilled her dream as a teenager of making a road movie, had the footage taken from her, and then made a movie about the whole saga (Shirkers is already available on Netflix).

Another was Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road, which opens with an extremely awkward funeral eulogy and only gets cringier- and somehow, funnier- from there. And the documentary Chef Flynn combines the so-so story of a teenaged chef prodigy with a much more compelling one about his overbearing mom.

The worst thing I saw at the fest was probably Infinite Football, a mind-numbing Romanian documentary about a guy’s quest to reinvent soccer to make it safer, although Vox Lux, with Natalie Portman as an abrasive, tragedy-adjacent pop star, wasn’t far behind. I expect to spend much of the winter arguing with those who loved it.

Sure, the festival lineup didn’t have everything. The upcoming film from the Coen brothers wasn’t in the lineup, and while Creed II and M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass were filmed in the area in the last year, but neither appeared at the festival (though M. Night himself was spotted at one screening.) But overall, this year’s PFF provided a fine, well-curated cross-section of the year in film.


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