Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives — That’s Entertainment!
by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly
The opening night film at Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, directed by Chris Perkel – in his directorial debut. The new film premiered at Madison Square Garden, followed by a live performance by several of the musical greats featured in the film – Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, Earth Wind & Fire, Barry Manilow, Carly Simon, and Dionne Warwick. Quite a splashy opening for “downtown” Tribeca. First question is always: Why is this the opening night film and is it justified? I have previously found fault with such choices, because they are often made with profit-making motives taking precedence over artistic merit or relevance of subject, but in this case, I am surprised to report: Yes, this was a good choice, and worthy.
Helen Highly recommends this film despite some red-flag causes for concern. First, the film, named Soundtrack of Our Lives is based on the Clive Davis autobiography titled Soundtrack of My Life. When a documentary biopic is essentially written by the subject, one does not expect much serious investigative journalism, and honestly, we do not receive much (or any) investigative reporting, nor shocking revelations or even new insights. Not even any fresh, gossipy tales. But I will concede that just because there is no groundbreaking news in this film, it does not mean that a powerful truth is not represented. Nor… well, sometimes really good entertainment is more the right answer than “real art.”
“He discovered Earth Wind & Fire – not the band, the elements.” – Bill Maher
I might snidely refer to this as a “fan film,” with nothing but laudatory gushing, but what stops me is the immensely true statement in the press release, calling this movie “ceaselessly entertaining.” And what becomes interesting is that the biggest fan in this film is the protagonist himself; he became the all-time greatest music man by being one of the all-time great fans of his musical clients. This is a story of a truly legendary man with “golden ears,” who touched nearly every stage in the history of modern American music, in a story that largely takes place in New York City, which is important in qualifying the film as appropriate for opening the Tribeca festival, which is quintessentially a New York institution. Clive Davis’ Arista Records was the center of New York life at a critical time in the development of the city and its artists. At one point in his career, Clive was being pushed out of Arista – the company he created and built, and in this movie, we hear Carly Simon speak about that, saying:
“Taking Clive Davis out of Arista is like taking Manhattan out of New York.”
Hell, even one of the most tough-minded and beloved New Yorkers, the profound, “punk poet laureate” and truth-speaking goddess of rock, who penned the anthem “People Have the Power,” Patti Smith, is in this movie, expressing admiration and gratitude to Clive Davis. And we get to hear her sing, “Because the Night.” Right there – that’s worth the price of admission.
And here is the bottom line: MUSIC! Lots and lots of lots of fascinating and spectacular and wondrous and truly historical and genuinely joyous musical footage by seemingly all of America’s greatest musicians and singers. And really, who needs to know if Clive Davis had any seedy sexual or even business encounters in his career? Who needs an understory to be dug up? This is more than a tribute film; this is a Legacy Movie. And Man, this man has created a legacy to define the word legacy.
The first shot in the movie is of Janis Joplin singing. That surprised me! I really had no idea that it was Clive Davis who “discovered” Janis Joplin. In fact, last year I wrote rather in-depth commentary about a documentary about Joplin, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, which Helen still Highly recommends, and that film talks about how Janis joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, and when she played with them at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her rendition of “Ball and Chain” made her an instant sensation (and in my words, “blew the collective minds of the audience.”) But that movie did not mention that Clive Davis, the newly-named head of Columbia Records – a lawyer (from NYU) who essentially came out of nowhere, with no musical background, to be handed that title, was in the audience (wearing white pants and a tennis sweater, if anyone doubts his good-boy, straight-guy image), and he signed Janis to a contract the next day – Clive’s first artist.
In this movie, unlike in the Janis doc, we actually get to hear Joplin sing that all-time-great rendition of “Ball and Chain,” as well as “Piece of My Heart.” In this film, Clive describes how “she was hypnotic,” and “I felt my arms tingle,” and most importantly, how he recognized Joplin – and rock ‘n roll – as a musical revolution – far ahead of some important others who wrongly predicted that rock ‘n roll would be a short-lived trend and who were still focusing their attention (and backing) on traditional, middle-of-the-road music.
The movie ends with the death of Whitney Houston, who we all know was “almost like a daughter” to Clive. We get to read a heartbreaking letter he wrote to Whitney, trying to persuade her to get help for her addictions. And we also get to see Clive first introducing Whitney on The Merv Griffin Show, when she was a mere child. The rise and fall of Whitney Houston to some extent serves as the arc of the story of the film, and it adds some needed gravitas. I thought they handled her story with appropriate sensitivity and yet didn’t get too bogged down in it.
But, clichés aside, the true story of Clive Davis’ life is the story of five decades of American music – from the 60’s to hip-hop. The list is crazy-long – not just stunning for whose career was touched (and made, or re-made) by Clive Davis, but for who the filmmakers got to appear in this movie and/or what musical footage they were able to include. The list starts with Janis Joplin and includes Simon and Garfunkel, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Santana, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Kinks, Barry Manilow, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Brooks & Dunn, Bob Dylan, Chicago, Carly Simon, Whitney Houston (of course), The Thompson Twins, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and even the Grateful Dead. Yup, Clive was determined to be the guy who would finally bring some commercial success to this cult-band, and he did. And there is Bob Weir (!) talking about it.
And then there is Barry Manilow. Who knew Barry Manilow was ever sexy or seemed hot? Well, apparently, he was, in the old days – after Clive found him and persuaded him to sing some songs he didn’t write himself so that he could make some hits. There is a clip of Barry Manilow singing “I Can’t Smile Without You,” and watching it, I myself could not stop smiling.
There is also one amusing clip of Bill Maher, who says of Clive, “He discovered Earth Wind & Fire – not the band, the elements.” Ha! And what is so much fun about this movie is that there is a film clip of almost everyone who was anyone, including some real gems of little-seen musical footage. They pulled together an impressive list of Who’s Who to do interviews for the documentary, but they smartly chose to cut those interviews into short quotes, squeezed in between a relentless songbook of great music. So, while there is actually no “story” per se, the movie is fast-paced and bright and uplifting – all about the tremendous potential and love and enthusiasm that Clive Davis saw and recognized and felt and brought to the world.
At one point, Simon Cowell, a star-maker in his own right, says, “Deep down we all wanted to be Clive Davis – to turn a singer into a superstar.” Clive could miraculously pick the truly special songs and singers, and he could turn them into chart-topping hits and all-time-greats. With his renowned passion and perfectionism, and a modest amount of magic, Clive served as a conduit between us and a humanity we didn’t know. Tired of Donald Trump depression? Go see this joyful film! It will renew your faith in people and life itself.
News: There is so much great music in this film, it’s no surprise that Apple has purchased the Clive Davis Documentary Soundtrack of Our Lives