“From Kenny G. to the Notrious B.I.G., now, that’s distance,” quipped record mogul Antonio “L.A.” Reid in the documentary on the musical life of Clive Davis, which opened the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on Wednesday.
Reid, who coincidentally (and, if the film is any indication, regretfully) replaced the then-68-year-old when he was pushed out of his own Arista Records in 2000, was one of many “record men” who paid homage to Davis, a man whose golden hands have touched artists as diverse as Janis Joplin (the first act he ever signed) Gil Scott-Heron, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Barry Manilow, Carlos Santana, Adam Levine and many others. This man has some serious breadth.
Clive Davis: Soundtrack of My Generation opened the downtown film festival last night at Radio City Music Hall, funnily located in midtown Manhattan and not Tribeca. In this case, Radio City was apropos because the space is large enough to hold Davis’ largesse and because, of course, there would be a concert of epic proportions after the screening.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came out to the packed Radio City crowd, praising Davis as a true New Yorker (he was born and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn) and then introducing Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro, the founders of the festival. Rosenthal and De Niro, a man who was raised in the city’s Greenwich Village neighborhood himself, then introduced the film, a sonorous walk down music-history lane.
The film tells us that Davis, a Harvard-educated lawyer, first forayed into music with a visit to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, a precursor to Woodstock featuring Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. A music critic featured prominently throughout the film notes that Davis landed at the nexus of “not just a social revolution, but a musical revolution.”
The film really homes in on Davis’ musical instincts—that is, his ability to find a hit record and pair it with the best artist—and that “gift he didn’t know he had” has given us the likes of Billy Joel; Earth, Wind & Fire; Bruce Springsteen; and Alicia Keys, along with Sean Puffy Combs’ Bad Boy Records and LaFace Records, which gave us Toni Braxton, TLC, Pink and Outkast.
Unsurprisingly, a decent amount of the film focuses on perhaps Davis’ best-known artist and muse, Whitney Houston. Houston started working with Davis when she was a fresh-faced 17-year-old straight out of New Jersey. Tragically, Houston died the night of Davis’ 2012 pre-Grammy party, and the film explores his loss in the context of his having been orphaned during college, when both of his parents died within a year of each other.
The film portrays the relationship between Houston and Davis as father-daughter and also reveals that Davis was in denial about Houston’s drug use for many years. Although the film does not necessarily delve deeply into Davis’ personal life, we do hear from several of his children, and it does touch on Davis’ bisexuality, which he spoke about publicly in 2013.
After the film, a who’s who of today’s superstars performed. And with a lineup that included Barry Manilow; Jennifer Hudson; Earth, Wind & Fire; Dionne Warwick; Carly Simon; and the mighty, mighty Aretha Franklin (in that order), it was obvious that the sprightly 85-year-old still commands the r-e-s-p-e-c-t of a music career unparalleled.