Clive Davis’ Documentary “…The Soundtrack of Our Lives” Goes Wide But Not Deep On The “Friendly Provocateur”
by Jerry Barrow
“You want me to be a sidebar to Puffy?” a perplexed Clive Davis asked in 2002. The young writer on the other end of the phone needed a supporting quote about Sean Combs for The Source Magazine’s annual “Power 30” issue. The legendary Mr. Davis was in his second or third year of running his label J Records, but had been instrumental in the launching of Combs’ Bad Boy Records through his label, Arista a decade prior. It was a mere footnote in a career that would span five decades, so his question was valid. Nevertheless, he granted the young scribe his much-needed quote and went about his business of making stars.
The awkward exchange underlines just how necessary the documentary “CLIVE DAVIS: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives” really is. In the music business he is not the man next to the man, he IS the man. But depending on who you ask and when, you can get a very limited view of just how important the former lawyer from Brooklyn was to American music and Black music in particular. However, Director Chris Perkel manages to sandwich the musical life of Davis (inspired by his book “The Soundtrack of My Life”) into a two-hour narrative that literally goes “from Kenny G to Notorious B.I.G” and beyond.
The film opens in the most effective way possible, with the people Davis helped and influenced singing his praises. A montage of Carlos Santana, Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston is punctuated with Simon Cowell—famous for his conceit—declaring that “I’m not better than he is.” With the table set we are slowly fed the details of the most unlikely music master of his generation and the next.
At 33 years old Davis was elevated from an in-house council to Administrative Vice President of Columbia Records, an ambiguous title that would give him room to reshape the company. While Davis is now known for throwing the most exclusive Grammy Awards party, he started out as an awkward duck in the music business. The man who would bring CBS Records into the Rock era attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 at the insistence of his colleague Lou Adler “wearing white pants and a tennis sweater, so I looked weird,” he confesses. The quote is punctuated by grainy stock footage of Davis with a thick head of hair in the festival crowd. But it wasn’t his dress that made him invaluable to the label. It was his ear. At the festival he would become smitten with the lead singer of the group Big Brother and The Holding Company, a 24-year-old Janis Joplin, and maneuvered to sign them to the label.
Davis would take this formula of signing new acts with great potential for relatively little money and helped grow CBS into a juggernaut. Carlos Santana, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen were brought into the fold and sold millions of records. In 1971 he backed Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records after Atlantic Records passed on the deal. But the film’s narrative goes light on what follows.
Davis seemed unstoppable, but the film pivots on his very first major obstacle, an invoice scandal in 1973. CBS Records fired Davis for alleged improprieties in a two-minute meeting on Tuesday May 29th. In his memoir, Davis was more detailed of the split than in the film, stating “I was met by two CBS security men and served with the company’s civil complaint against me,” alleging $94 Million worth of expense account violations.” Clive’s secondhand dealings with known payola men Harry Coombs and Kal Rudman (associates of Kenny Gamble) were revealed to the feds by his own aide, a gun toting mob affiliate named David Wynshaw. Fredric Dannen’s 1990 book “Hit Men” goes into fine detail about this music mess, but the doc ties a nice bow around the time period with Clive being exonerated with a $1 Million check from Columbia House and studying to reinstate the law degree he lost in the process.
vDavis would have other professional missteps, like not signing John Cougar Melllencamp because he was too similar to Bruce Springsteen and instead going with eventual duds like The Alpha Band. But these blemishes are mere pauses at the stop light in the overall journey. This is a victory lap and hubris is in high supply. But what the film lacks in balance it makes up for in heart. Davis’s love affair with his artists and their music is elevated to near romantic status (not counting the time he spurned Joplin’s sexual advances). In one grainy vignette he is seen reading the lyrics to Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light” as if it were a bedtime story. And when he convinces saxophonist Kenny G—who is Jewish—to record a Christmas album, you can almost hear gears turning in his head as they both recount the story, yet Clive’s “I told you so grin” says more than both of them.
Of all the artists relationships explored in the film Davis’s grooming of the late Whitney Houston is understandably given the most airtime. From being introduced via her mother Cissy to her starring role in “The Bodyguard,” Clive Davis was there every step of the way. “There was so little music, you didn’t know why she needed a bodyguard,” he said of his early critique of the film, which lead to more songs being added. While it was seen as a self-serving move by a label exec, Davis’s insisting that Houston remake Dolly Parton’s “And I Will Always Love You” proved to be yet another one of his undeniable moves.
Along with the aforementioned Bad Boy era, “CLIVE DAVIS: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives” does a noteworthy job of chronicling a life and career that is far too vast and broad to fit in the format. But where it falters is in having the viewer believe that this was all Davis’s doing. While his “ear” is undeniable, there were undoubtedly countless people who worked with him behind the scenes who we don’t hear much from. Sure, the artists (Puffy is rightfully positioned as a sidebar commentator) and a few journalists provide the necessary talking points, but it’s not enough to keep the film from feeling like a visualized wikipedia entry. Points about his personal life (being orphaned as a teenager and coming out as bisexual later in life) are given cursory mentions but we are left with a much stronger picture of what Davis has accomplished as an executive than who he is as a man. This is a greatest hits compilation of an extraordinary man, and will serve novices well in playing catch up, but real fans may find that they have already have these cuts in their collection.
Check out a few of the performances from the opening night event at Radio City Music Hall:
Aretha Franklin Performing “Natural Woman” at Radio City Music Hall concert on April 19, 2017
Jerry Barrow is the founder of NODFACTOR.com and is a New York based veteran journalist with stints at The Source, Scratch Magazine and WatchLOUD. Follow his work on Twitter @JLBarrow. Check out some of his work for soulhead.