We are a day and a half away from the opening of the Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall and an amazing documentary called “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives.” The screening will be followed by a superstar show starring Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Earth Wind & Fire, Jennifer Hudson, Barry Manilow, and a rare appearance by Carly Simon.
I had the good fortune to watch “Soundtrack” yesterday on the 22nd floor of the Sony Music building with none other than Mr. Davis, now 85, and certainly the most famous executive ever in the recorded music business. It’s not an overstatement to say, “Wow,” even if you’ve read his memoir upon which the doc is based. or know anything about Clive’s extraordinary six decades of hit making.
Of course, there is previously unseen footage of Whitney Houston that will floor you, from her introduction on The Merv Griffin Show to private performances at Davis’s famed pre-Grammy Award concerts over the years. Whitney’s rise and fall as played out in this film will bring even the most cynical to tears, especially when Clive reads the letter he sent his star in 2001 begging her to get help for drug addiction.
“Soundtrack” is not tears and sad revelations. Bruce Springsteen reveals how Davis wouldn’t release his first album until he went away and wrote what became huge hits: “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light.” Truly a highlight of this film, which I’ve never seen before, is Davis reading the lyrics to the latter song in a video that went out to Columbia Records promo people in 1973. We also get to see DAvis’s first meeting with Janis Joplin, whom he signed after seeing her perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. (There’s DA Pennebaker’s famous footage of Clive rocking out in a white tennis sweater in a sea of hippies. Classic.)
The interviews with the stars recalling their introductions to Davis are just beautiful. For instance, Carlos Santana says that back in 1970 he and his band played “auditions” for both Davis and Atlantic Records’ legendary Ahmet Ertegun. The band wanted to go with Atlantic, but Santana had a feeling about Davis and Columbia Records. “We played horrible for Ahmet,” Santana remembers, “but I played my heart out for Clive.”
There are great interviews with Aretha, Barry Manilow, Sean Puffy Combs, Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keys — the movie really is the soundtrack of our lives, 50 years of pop, rock and R&B and it’s never less than enthralling. It’s warts and all, too, as they say, because director Chris Peckel (who did a terrific job) goes over Davis’s two career lows in detail– each one turned into even bigger successes.
My favorite quote is from Patti Smith, the queen of punk rock, whom Davis in one of his visionary moves signed to Arista Records in 1975. “Clive has a weakness for artists,” Smith concludes. And that’s what it’s all about.