The highly-anticipated documentary about Roberta Flack, entitled “Roberta” (Warner Music, American Masters, Arte), directed by award-winning filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio, has finally arrived. Roberta Flack is a legendary figure, known globally for her Grammy-winning pop music career as a singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, and activist. Her chart-topping #1 singles, including “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (which dominated the charts for five weeks), and “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” have cemented her place in music history.
Roberta Flack’s legacy is one that transcends musical categorization, and the American Masters documentary “Roberta” provides a closer look at her life and impact on music and pop culture. Born in North Carolina in 1937, Flack showed an early talent for music, studying classical piano and voice at Howard University in Washington D.C. She went on to teach music in public schools and perform in jazz clubs, before eventually making her way to New York City, where she became a sought-after session singer and was discovered by jazz impresario Joel Dorn.
Flack’s rise to fame was swift, with her first album, “First Take,” released in 1969, showcasing her soulful voice and mastery of ballads. Her cover of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” became a hit and earned her a Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. This was just the beginning of a string of successful albums and hit singles, including “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” which topped the charts for five weeks, and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”
Flack’s duets with Donny Hathaway, including “Where Is the Love” and “The Closer I Get to You,” are considered some of the most iconic love songs of all time and solidified her place in music history. Her unique sound, blending classical training with soul and jazz influences, was a departure from the more R&B-influenced Black female singers of the time, and this made her a target of criticism from some music critics who deemed her too polished or reserved. However, her prodigious talent and commitment to the civil rights movement made her a favorite among fans and earned her a place in the pantheon of musical legends.
Throughout her career, Flack remained active in the civil rights movement and used her platform to speak out on social justice issues. She performed at rallies and marches, and her music often dealt with themes of love, loss, and social justice. Her activism was informed by her upbringing in a family of educators and her experiences as a Black woman in America.
Despite her many achievements, Flack’s life has not been without challenges. In recent years, she has been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease ALS, which has made it impossible for her to sing and difficult for her to speak. However, her legacy continues to inspire and her music remains beloved by fans around the world.
“American Masters: Roberta Flack” is a fitting tribute to this musical icon, showcasing her talent, activism, and enduring impact on the music industry. The film provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the fullness of Roberta Flack and to remember her as a true trailblazer, whose talent and commitment to justice have earned her a place among the greats of American music.