"Roberta" Premieres at DOCNYC Festival

Roberta Flack


I was privileged to be in the audience for the world premiere of Antonino d'Ambrosio's new film Roberta, a documentary on the life of the two-time Grammy Award-winning American chanteuse Roberta Flack. For those of us who were around in the 1970s, Roberta Flack's music has been part of the soundtrack of our lives for 50 years. Via personal interviews with luminaries such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Yoko Ono, Angela Davis, Peabo Bryson, Valerie Simpson, Sean Lennon, among others, the film paints a a multi-faceted picture of the artist, and answers many questions that we may have had.

Flack in 1971
In the film, Flack was very tight-lipped about her childhood, aside from saying that her mother was their church organist and she sang in the choir. She came from a very large family, and said that she didn't sleep alone until she was an adult. A child prodigy, she began studying classical piano at age 9 and was awarded a full music scholarship to Howard University at age 15. In 1968, she worked as a music teacher during the day, and at night performed regularly at a Washington, DC, nightclub. It was at this club where she caught the eye of jazz great Les McCann, who arranged an audition for Flack with Atlantic Records, which led to the recording of her debut album, First Take. “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” a song from the album, was personally selected by Clint Eastwood for his directorial debut Play Misty for Me, and it would win Flack a Grammy Award. The following year, she won a Grammy for “Killing Me Softly,” becoming the first artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in two consecutive years.

Flack with Donny Hathaway
In the film, Roberta Flack describes in her own words how difficult it was for her to cope with racism as a young girl, and later with sexism as an adult in the industry. She fought to produce her own recordings, and even took on an alter ego to ease some of the blows.

The film also reveals that, had it not been for Roberta, we might not have heard of Donny Hathaway, Peabo Bryson, or Luther Vandross.

I first met Roberta Flack in the 1970s when she was at the height of her fame. She had come to Nashville to perform as soloist with the Nashville Symphony. At the time, I had been a recent piano soloist with the symphony, and when introduced she said to me, "Oh, I'm so delighted to meet you!" At the time I did not know of her own ambitions to become a world-renowned classical pianist herself. In my memoir I tell the story of how our paths crossed again years later in New York City - when I was preparing to record my own album - and she invited me to practice on her 9-foot Bösendorfer in her apartment in the Dakota. (She was the first black woman to live in the Dakota, BTW.) I witnessed first hand her generosity and her willingness to support other artists.

Jesse Jackson and Flack
Before watching the film, I had not known of Flack's involvement with Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, or of her support of activist Angela Davis. A film like this has been long overdue, and we look forward to the PBS broadcast of Roberta in January of 2023 as part of the series American Masters.

                         

Nina Kennedy is a concert pianist, orchestral conductor, and award-winning filmmaker. She holds a master’s degree from the Juilliard School. Her memoir, Practicing for Love, is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. The sequel, Practice What You Preach, is available at infemnity.com/shop.

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