Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Review: If You Don’t Know Me is a charmed look at the spirit, struggles & sex appeal of Teddy Pendergrass

If you don’t know artist, Teddy Pendergrass by now, you certainly will. In the documentary, If You Don’t Know Me we learn all about this R & B singer who was often referred to as “The Black Elvis.” This film is an illuminating look at the life and legacy of this legendary soul man.

Pendergrass’ story is one that proves that you can succeed against all odds. He was raised by a single mother in poverty in Philadelphia. He tried to avoid involvements in gang warfare but this isn’t explored in any great detail here. This documentary does have a tendency of taking a hagiographic root at times. Pendergrass then found his first success as a member of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. He left the group in the mid-seventies and went on to have a multi-platinum selling, solo career.

This film is directed by BAFTA-winner, Olivia Lichtenstein. She has been afforded rather close access to Pendergrass’ family and friends here. Among the interviewees are Teddy’s mother, ex-wife, and widow. There are also interviews with Questlove (The Roots), manager, Shep Gordon and fellow Blue Notes, Lloyd Parks and Jerry Cummings.

This intimate documentary shows how this soul man lived a charmed life but that all this was disrupted by some major setbacks. In 1976 Pendergrass’ first manager and girlfriend, Taaz Lang was shot dead on a doorstep. Her death remains an unsolved mystery. In 1982 Pendergrass was involved in a serious car accident that rendered him a quadriplegic. For years he did not sing and grappled with a bad depression. He was saved by psychiatrist, Dan Gottlieb, who is very candid here.

Pendergrass made a defiant return to music in 1985 at the Live Aid concerts. It was a spiritual rebirth and this offers some of the most visceral and heartfelt moments here. The soundtrack to this film is nothing short of amazing. While the film celebrates Pendergrass’ obvious talent and sex appeal, the music is what is really worth the price of admission. His songs still sparkle and pop with warmth, even now.

If You Don’t Know Me is a bittersweet look at one late, great artist. This film is a lovingly-researched portrait of a soul man who exuded the truth throughout his career, every step of the way. This uplifting documentary is an entertaining ode to triumph over adversity.


Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me plays as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. For more information head HERE.

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