On Wednesday night, the 16th annual Tribeca Film Festival opened at Radio City Music Hall with a rollicking concert that served as a tribute to the legendary Clive Davis. Barry Manilow, Jennifer Hudson, Dionne Warwick, Earth Wind & Fire (with help from Kenny G), Carly Simon, and Aretha Frankin sang hit after hit in what was the grandest film festival opening night extravaganza I’ve ever attended. (Tribeca has a reputation for some good opening night concerts, but this felt more like a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction than it did a kickoff to 10 days of movies.)
They were all there in support of Clive Davis – the legendary record executive who signed everyone from Janis Joplin to Alicia Keys – and the new documentary about his fabled career, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. Directed by Chris Perkel, the inherent problem with a documentary that brings so much star-studded talent to perform live is that the film itself has to be less a balanced look at a human being and more a love letter to an icon – and Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is 100 percent a love letter. With such amazing performances that followed it, the film itself almost served as a two-hour-long pre-roll before the concert started.
That’s not to say the film wasn’t enjoyable. Clive Davis has worked with so many artists over his career that watching the documentary is kind of like listening to a greatest hits playlist of some of the most popular songs to be recorded over the last 50 years.
And Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives uses a trick over and over that I knowingly fell for every time: It will start with a recording artist like Carlos Santana explaining how he tried telling Clive that he wasn’t sure his reintroduction to radio airplay would work, then the guitar riff of “Smooth” will kick in with a knowing, “Well, I guess that worked out,” attitude. This is done over and over with everything from Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” to Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” to Kenny G’s “Songbird.”
Speaking of Kenny G, the best part of this documentary comes from his interviews where he still seems a little shocked he became the success that he did (there’s early footage of Kenny G trying to give an album away to a man on the streets of New York and the man just takes off running). But after a few mammoth records, Clive Davis tells Kenny G that he needs to record a Christmas album. Kenny G then explains to Davis how that won’t work because he’s Jewish. The film then smash cuts to Kenny G performing Christmas songs on television.
But Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives plays more like an authorized biography than it does a true look at this man’s life. An example: The film does touch on Davis being bisexual and is lauded for speaking about this openly, but we never hear from Davis’ past wives. The film also does touch on the payola scandal of the early 1970s that cost Davis his job as head of Columbia Records, but is quick to conclude that Davis did nothing wrong. And maybe that’s true, but the details seem a lot more complicated than the film portrays them as being. And when Davis talks about regrets, the biggest insight we get is that he regrets not signing John Mellencamp because he reminded Davis of Springsteen.
Another peculiar aspect is how the film explores Davis’ relationship with Whitney Houston. It’s clear that Houston was special to Davis and we are reminded just how electric she was. (There’s a good anecdote about how Davis hated an early cut of The Bodyguard because Houston doesn’t sing. David wrote a letter pleading that the film include scenes of Houston performing and Kevin Costner sided with Davis, ensuring this would happen.)
When we get to Houston’s death, the film starts to feel like a documentary on her life instead of Davis’. And this isn’t being callous to what happened to Houston, but she’s not the only one of Davis’ artists to die (the first artist he ever signed was Janis Joplin), yet around 20 minutes of the film are spent recounting her last days – to the point I forgot who the true subject of the documentary was.
Look, if you’re someone who only knows Clive Davis as someone who was involved in American Idol, then Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives works as a sort of crash course on the biggest names he worked with. And you will come out of it thinking that Clive Davis is the nicest man who ever walked this planet. And for all I know that’s true, but this film sure isn’t about to tell anyone any differently.
But it is a testament that, after the film, all these legendary artists showed up at Radio City Music Hall to put on one hell of a show for him.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.