'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives': Film Review

It's starting to feel like the Tribeca Film Fest can't have an Opening Night without three things: the cringeworthy sight Robert De Niro unsuccessfully reading an opening message f a sheet paper; a string more self-congratulatory corporate/civic promos than any other fest would allow (tonight, one touting United Airlines' pampering passengers drew so much derisive laughter it drowned out the next ad entirely); and a puff-piece doc about a powerful showbiz figure, made by an inexperienced filmmaker who can be relied on to treat his subject as if he discovered both the cure for cancer and the PB&J sandwich.

To be sure, the subject Chris Perkel's Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Our Lives did indeed play a pivotal role in recording a staggering number pop hits. But isn't that track record impressive enough that it could stand up to the inclusion just one interviewee here voicing the opinion that — from Kenny G to Air Supply to “I Write the Songs” — Clive Davis also created the soundtrack for a very slow elevator ride through Hell?

Questions musical taste (as opposed to hit-savvy reading the zeitgeist) aside, Soundtrack does fer an informative primer for anyone unfamiliar with the scope this truly impressive career; it also introduces a character whose obvious enjoyment and gratitude for his life has made him very popular in the industry. But like so many docs its sort (which are hardly unique to this fest), it is at best fodder for cable/digital outlets, or for packaging as a DVD/CD set collecting some the hits for which Davis was responsible. (On the eve the premiere, rights have been bought by Apple Music.)

Davis' parents both died when he was young, but he put himself through college and went to Harvard Law on scholarship. A high achiever, he was working at a top New York law firm when an acquaintance recruited him for the law department at Columbia Records.

Davis recalls getting a bizarre fer one day to leave the legal department and become the head Columbia's musical-instrument division. The next day, the fer was rescinded: Instead, this young man with no musical experience was asked to run Columbia Records.

Looking back, Davis dismisses the label he was inheriting as a purveyor “middle the road” pap. (Said, with no apparent irony, by the man who gave us Kenny G, Chicago, and scores other mainer-than-mainstream chart-toppers.) At the suggestion Lou Adler, this self-admitted square went to 1967's Monterey Pop festival — whereupon he saw Janis Joplin, and the scales fell from his eyes.

He signed her immediately, and began learning how to work with artists. Soon he felt he knew what was best for them, and history justified his confidence: Early in the film, Paul Simon recalls how Davis had to talk him and Art Garfunkel into releasing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a single; Bruce Springsteen (in an interview seemingly recorded years ago by someone else) remembers that “Blinded By the Light” would not have existed if Davis hadn't listened to an early version his debut album and said it didn't have a hit on it. As for Miles Davis, we have to rely on the exec's own memory how he nudged the jazz legend into performing at rock clubs, leading to Bitches Brew.

Letting Davis tell his own story for the most part, we ride through a career that saw him getting fired a couple times despite the millions he was generating for corporate bosses. There's a clear chip-on-shoulder element here — watch as Davis reads the statement penned by a judge, exonerating him Payola accusations — but the film doesn't get bogged down in boardroom maneuvers. It's too busy showing clip after clip live performances by Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, and, course, Whitney Houston. Davis made some impressive discoveries, made pacts with others (like Gamble & Huff) who knew genres he didn't, and managed comebacks for some stars who had fallen on hard times. (If you want to celebrate Aretha Franklin's “Freeway Love” period, here's your opportunity. The rest us will be over in this corner relistening to her Atlantic recordings.)

We see example after example in which control-freak Davis saw what nobody else could — which makes it a tiny bit confusing that he claims not to have known Milli Vanilli didn't sing on their own record. But Davis' biggest blind spot came with Whitney Houston's drug problem, which he refused to acknowledge until the rest the world knew. Perkel devotes a disproportionate chunk screentime to chronicling Houston's decline and death, which clearly weighs on the man who brought her into the public eye. Soundtrack Our Lives relishes several her performances, from her TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show to a 2004 tribute to Davis, and makes it clear that the two were about as close as a mogul and a megastar can be. If it gives Clive Davis too much credit for her success (she had a family full pressional singers, after all, and had been courted by labels well before he saw her perform), well, that's hardly a surprise.

Production company: Scott Free

Director-Editor: Chris Perkel

Producer: Michael Bernstein

Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Mary Lisio, Stuart Ford, David Schulh, Deborah Zipser

Director photography: Kenny Stf

Composer: Paul S. Henning

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)

Sales: Liesl Copland, WME Global

 

123 minutes