‘Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives’: Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Chris Perkel recounts a staggeringly successful music career in ‘Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives.’

It’s starting to feel like the Tribeca Film Fest can’t have an opening night without three things: the cringeworthy sight of Robert De Niro unsuccessfully reading an opening message off a sheet of paper; a string of more self-congratulatory corporate/civic promos than any other fest would allow (on this night, one touting United Airlines’ pampering of 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 of Chris Perkel’s Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives did indeed play a pivotal role in recording a staggering number of pop hits. But isn’t that track record impressive enough that it could stand up to the inclusion of 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?

The Bottom Line

A fawning but informative primer for music lovers with, er, very broad tastes.

Questions of musical taste (as opposed to hit-savvy reading of the zeitgeist) aside, Soundtrack of Our Lives does offer an informative primer for anyone unfamiliar with the scope of this truly impressive career; it also introduces a character whose obvious enjoyment of and gratitude for his life has made him very popular in the industry. But like so many docs of 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 of the hits for which Davis was responsible. (On the eve of 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 offer one day to leave the legal department and become the head of Columbia’s musical-instrument division. The next day, the offer was rescinded: Instead, this young man with no musical experience was asked to run Columbia Records.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 of “middle of the road” pap. (Said, with no apparent irony, by the man who gave us Kenny G, Chicago and scores of other mainer-than-mainstream chart-toppers.) At the suggestion of 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.

Davis 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of payola accusations — but the film doesn’t get bogged down in boardroom maneuvers. It’s too busy showing clip after clip of live performances by Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, and, of 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 of Love” period, here’s your opportunity. The rest of 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 Houston’s drug problem, which he refused to acknowledge until the rest of the world knew. Perkel devotes a disproportionate chunk of screen time to chronicling Houston’s decline and death, which clearly weighs on the man who brought her into the public eye. Soundtrack of Our Lives relishes several of 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 Davis too much credit for her success (she had a family full of professional 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 Schulhof, Deborah Zipser
Director of photography: Kenny Stoff
Composer: Paul S. Henning
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
Sales: Liesl Copland, WME Global

123 minutes