A biopic capturing the life of an esteemed soul artist has been released across selected British cinemas. Ahead of a special screening hosted by Darlington Film Club, Jim Scott spoke to its director, who will be attending in person

TEDDY PENDERGRASS found himself with life-changing injuries after a horrific car crash rendered him paralysed from the chest down when he was just 31, but little did he know that his terrifying ordeal would mark a turning point in his life, and lead him to achieve more than anyone expected.

A film which documents the life of the black artist, who spent much of his life trying to fight 1970s prejudice against fellow black performers, has premiered across selected British cinemas.

Directed by the BAFTA-winning film director Olivia Lichtenstein, “Teddy Pendergrass – If You Know Me,” is a world-first for his life story to be told in film.

Teddy, his stage name, was born in 1950 in South Carolina as Theodore Pendergrass.

His soul career took-off when he bagged a lead singer role of the soul band, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

But he did not get the chance to become the household name, that perhaps he should have been according to film director, Olivia, who says she had a personal interest to tell his story.

She said: “I grew up listening to soul music and it was big, everyone at school listened to it. We would be in the school hall and we would role play little dances to it – it was always my music.”

The film, which was completed last year, tells Teddy’s story from his beginning, and tell his frustration as he teetered on the verge of international stardom when tragedy struck.

But rather than focus on his sad death aged 59, in 2010, the film also explores his battle against his injuries and gives the audience an insight as to how he would have felt.

Olivia says: “This is a human story that feels almost Shakespearian – it’s much more than just a music biopic, it’s an intimate portrait both of Teddy, and of the extraordinary times in which he lived.

“We really get to know him because we hear from so many people who were close to him – it almost feels as if he comes back to life to let the world hear him sing again.”

Throughout, scenes depict some of Teddy’s highs and lows, and especially acknowledges his life and thirst to continue his music, even after his accident.

“I started listening to Teddy again a few years ago, and thought he had such a voice. I found out that Shep Gordon had been his manager, and I felt an overcoming urge to tell his story.”

As Teddy’s success grew throughout the 1970’s, he became synonymous with hits like Don’t Leave Me This Way, and If You Don’t Know Me By Now. He was also managed by, at the time, industry-expert Shep.

The director approached Shep, who introduced her to Teddy’s family.

From there, she conducted interviews with his ex-wife, 100-year-old mother, Ida, and had full co-operation from Teddy’s widow, Joan.

Olivia says: “Well his family said they ought to see him remembered and see his story being told – to get that validation and recognition.

“A lot of people who had also worked with him said Teddy deserved this.”

The 106-minute production includes original footage of his performances, which Olivia obtained through her contacts. She also reunited Teddy’s former band members for one final performance in tribute.

“So, I met so many fantastic people – I brought his band back together to play together once more.

“It was a wonderful and an emotional experience for all involved.”

Olivia says she is pleased to receive a positive reception from Teddy’s family and friends, after they had seen it.

“You know I have been making documentaries for a long time on a whole varied of subjects from rape to prostitution to the royal family – you have to be a little bit obsessive.

“It is always hard to know how well something does – I didn’t what it to be just a music documentary, it is such a big important story.

“It resonates beyond him and his music – the response from people is that they have been very moved by it.

“For example, how a life can be changed in a second.

“How fragile life is.”

The film has been co-produced by BBC Films and Wasted Talent.

"Teddy Pendergrass – If You Know Me" will be shown at Darlington Forum Music Centre on Monday, March 4 at 7.30pm. Hosted by Darlington Film Club, the screening will be followed by a Q&A from director Olivia Lichtenstein.