‘Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives’ and How to Open a Film Festival

A new music documentary, and an accompanying mini-concert, kicked off the 16th annual event.

How do you start a film festival? Most just start it with, y’know, a film – not always one of your best, even, particularly if you’re talking about Sundance or Cannes, where much of the audience has come from some distance and has a reasonably good chance of snoozing through it anyway. SXSW and the New York Film Festival tend to put one of their biggest, if not their very biggest, up front – the better to attract attention, launching their battleship with a giant bottle of champagne. And for some time, the Tribeca Film Festival did the same; previous opening night movies have included Spider-Man 3, The Avengers, and Shrek Forever After. But those films never felt quite right for the scrappy-underdog spirit of the fest, which has veered over the past few years into opening with documentaries, often of local interest – but at a big gala, supplemented by boisterous mini-concerts after. Hey, it’s still New York. Gotta make some noise.

The subject matter of this year’s opening night film was ideal for such a pairing (one might even surmise that’s why it was chosen). Chris Perkel’s Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is a biographical documentary profile of Davis, the music industry impresario with the “Golden Ear,” known for his rather astonishing skill at picking hit songs and popular artists (and matching them up correctly). He started in the mid-‘60s and hasn’t stopped; the breadth of his career is apparent from the opening credits, which careen from “Me and Bobby McGee” to “Smooth” to “Looks Like We Made It” to “People Got the Power,” with stops in between. Or, as one of his admirers puts it, “From Kenny G to Notorious B.I.G. – that’s distance.”

Soundtrack tells a big story at a quick clip: his working class background, his sideways entry into the record business, his life-changing trip to the Monterey Pop Festival (there’s a great shot of Davis, Mr. Square, sticking out like a freak in that crowd), his rise to the top at Columbia, his fall following (false, it seems) accusations of payola and “drugola,” his bounce-back with Arista Records, his ousting from that label decades later (ostensibly for getting too old), yet another comeback at J Records. Davis spins the yarn well; he’s a good storyteller, and isn’t too proud to acknowledge the occasional fumbles, bad calls, and doubts (“Will I go over the hill? Am I going over the hill?”), as well as the degree to which his success is driven by his fear.

As documentary, it’s pretty pro forma, a slick assemblage of archival clips and talking heads (though both are top-notch), and the narrative is easy to plot out even if you don’t know his story (i.e., time to break and talk about Clive the family man, time to introduce the villains who pushed him out). And Perkel seems too reverent of his subject to point out the elephant in the room: that aside from the triumphs, Davis was also responsible for putting some really terrible music into the world (Air Supply, Kenny G, ACE of Base, Milli Vanilli, ‘80s Chicago). But they were hits! Davis himself would probably object. And he’s right.

He had more hits with Whitney Huston than with anyone, and a fair amount of Soundtrack tells their mutual story – how he discovered her, shepherded her to fame, acted as her father figure in the industry, yet was ultimately as powerless to save her from herself as anyone. This thread is heartbreaking (he still tears up, remembering his failed attempts to reach her), but there’s probably too much of it; it feels like its own story, a point underscored by the fact that there’s a whole other Whitney movie elsewhere in this festival.

But Perkel packs in a lot of information, plenty of tasty stories, and some marvelous archival clips. He’s clever with his introductions too – he knows that we know where he’s going right before he gets there, and teases it out. Tribeca’s opening night audience ate it all up, viewing it to some extent like the concert it was preceding: applauding songs, artists, even sales figures (some industry people in this crowd, no doubt). They were primed by the time the screen raised and the 90-or-so minute mini-concert began, with a crew of big names, festival co-founder Robert De Niro joked, “fresh from not performing at the inauguration.”

Six big names total, in fact: Barry Manilow, who kicked it off by announcing, “What a movie! What a life! And I was there!,” Jennifer Hudson, Earth Wind & Fire (with an unfortunate pop-up appearance by Kenny G, the quickest removal of soul from a stage I’ve ever seen), Dionne Warwick, Carly Simon, and Aretha Franklin. Clive Davis was a hit-maker, and no one was there to do deep cuts; their mini-sets consisted either of a couple of their hits, or a medley of their hits (Hudson was the sole exception, performing a medley of Whitney Huston’s hits, as well as a startling cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and yes, I know, we’ve all heard it a million times, but not quite like this). Familiarity was what this audience wanted, and it’s what they got, but no one was phoning it in either; show closer Franklin’s killer rave-up at the end of “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” was neither that of someone who’s been singing that song for literally fifty years, or who’s grown tired of singing it. As always, she left it all on stage.

Between the performers’ affectionate patter, the winks from host Whoopi Goldberg, and the video testimonial from Alicia Keys, the evening at times felt less like a film festival event than a music industry tribute. But these are small complaints. I saw a decent documentary tonight, and then I got to watch Aretha and Earth, Wind, & Fire sing. Top that, Cannes.

“Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives” will screen again tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival. Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire