“Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” the documentary that opened the Tribeca Film Festival tonight, is an example of how a movie can be flagrantly hagiographic, sentimental, and hypnotized by its own subject — and still make you want to keep watching it. Davis, the fabled record-company executive who shepherded the careers of artists from Janis Joplin to Bruce Springsteen to Barry Manilow to Patti Smith to Whitney Houston to Alicia Keys, is a figure who has spent nearly as much time burnishing his legend as living it. “The Soundtrack of Our Lives” is the World According to Clive: It presents its subject, with almost no qualification, as the mensch with the golden ears, a man who discovered one artist after another, nurtured them and lived for them, and always knew just what was right for them. It is, no doubt, an overly simple story that adds up to a kind of counter-myth of the music business. Instead of sleaze, ego, corruption, and the greedy willingness to exploit artists, we get the saga of a tender musical fairy godfather.
Yet just because “The Soundtrack of Our Lives” fails to present the whole truth doesn’t mean that what it shows you isn’t true, or captivating. The real Clive Davis is, without doubt, a more ruthless customer than the slow-talking nerd Teddy bear we see on screen (he’s now a relatively spry 85), yet the film is built around the nostalgic appeal of what the music business once was; it celebrates how someone like Davis could work with a freedom that now seems enviable, if not miraculous. Watching the movie is like listening to some ultimate annotated Classic Top 40 playlist. You know you may not be getting the full story, but what’s there sheds irresistible slivers of light on the mystery of how great pop comes into being.
Davis, we learn, knew nothing at all about music when he was plucked from the CBS/Columbia legal department to head the record division. At that point, the company was still feeding off hitmakers like Andy Willliams, but in 1967, not long after his promotion, Davis went to the Monterey Pop Festival and had an epiphany. Telling that story here, he catches you up in the drama of how he was a geek in a crowd of hippies who saw Janis Joplin perform and was physically moved by her; he felt it in his spine. She was the first artist he ever signed, but the key to that moment — and to the rest of his career — is that Davis became a corporate mandarin of pop by having the wisdom to regard himself as a surrogate for the audience. It’s not so much that his ears were magical as that he trusted them. He saw that behind the star-hit machinery, the music business ran on something more sacred — a religion of sound. The song was everything.
“The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” which was directed and edited by Chris Perkel, is strewn with lively anecdotes about how Davis signed, or marketed, or reconfigured the artists who wound up on his roster, and in doing so helped to define them. He interfaced with rock & rollers, discovering Aerosmith and telling Springsteen that there were no singles on “Greetings From Asbury Park,” which prompted Bruce, the next day, to write “Blinded by the Light.”
But Davis, at heart, was a guru of pop. He figured out that Barry Manilow should never sing his own songs, he engineered the comeback singles that made born-again superstars out of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Carlos Santana, and after discovering Whitney Houston when she was a 19-year-old diamond in the rough, he had songwriters submit their work to what were basically seminars designed to produce the perfect song for her. It worked. (“Whitney Houston” sold 22 million copies and spawned enough number-one singles to tie the Beatles’ record.) Davis became Houston’s father figure and pop Svengali, but only because he recognized that she was no puppet. She was the most spiritually electrifying voice of her time, and in this case it really was Davis’ curation that allowed her genius to blossom.
His range was extraordinary: Who else could devote himself to Patti Smith and Melissa Manchester, Gil Scott-Heron and Kenny G, Kelly Clarkson and the Notorious B.I.G.? He didn’t draw the pop-vs.-edge distinction that too many fans (and critics) do. In his ear-candy-is-king way, Clive Davis was able to listen without prejudice. The film whirls through the legal issues and record-company politics that resulted in his occasional ups and downs (like when he got tossed out of Columbia in 1973, which resulted in his launch of Arista). Whatever the setback, Clive always recovered, because the suits inevitably decided that they needed him.
You won’t learn much about Davis’ personal story from “The Soundtrack of Our Lives.” He was married twice, always showed up to Sunday dinner, and — as he famously asserted in his 2013 memoir, “The Soundtrack of My Life” — is bisexual. But he reveals next to nothing about his experiences, so even that revelation remains an abstract tidbit. The most powerful relationship in the movie is the one between Davis and Whitney Houston, who he tried to rescue from the scourge of addiction — and did, at least for a while, back in 2004. He refused to cancel his legendary Grammy party the night she died because, in his words, “The show must go on.” For Clive Davis, it really has. His signing of Alicia Keys proved that he still had the instinct to connect to an artist who lets the emotion pour out of her. That’s because, as this movie reveals, he lets it pour right into him.