Sometimes when hunting big game, there’s an understandable skittishness about startling them. By that measure, the “American Masters” documentary “Inventing David Geffen” seems so enamored with having gained extensive access to the entertainment mogul as to have pulled its punches — not producing a whitewash, exactly, but certainly accentuating the positive, at the expense of reducing juicier controversies surrounding the billionaire to what amounts to a late-in-the-program lightning round. Warren Beatty coyly describes Geffen as “giftedly non-diplomatic,” but nobody would accuse PBS of that in referring to this entertaining-but-thin appreciation as an “unflinching portrait.”
Producer-writer-director Susan Lacy seems to have interviewed anybody Geffen ever met, which, given the swath he has cut through the industry, by itself makes for an impressive roster and nostalgic trip down memory lane. What’s mostly missing are third-party voices capable of providing perspective on the man and his career, without the complicating factor of calling Geffen a friend.
The best stuff, arguably, focuses on his early days in the record industry, and how he was steered into it as a young agent because, as an older colleague told him, “Mick Jagger is your age,” making Geffen better able to relate to that medium’s stars. He eventually parlayed that eye for talent into his own record label, championing such acts as Joni Mitchell (who wrote “Free Man in Paris” about him), Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jackson Browne, As fellow mogul Barry Diller notes, “There isn’t anybody who’s had the kind of career that he has had, that crosses so many parts of arts and entertainment.” That’s certainly true, considering his expansion into movies (there’s a great anecdote about trying to give Clint Eastwood editing advice during his time at Warner Bros.); the creation of DreamWorks (Geffen was more nervous about the enterprise than he let on); and producing Broadway shows such as “Dreamgirls,” which brought him even closer to the toll AIDS inflicted on the gay community.
Still, Geffen is famous in part for his take-no-prisoners attitude — qualities that have rightly earned him the reputation of being a wonderful friend but also a terrible enemy. As evidence, witness his public denunciation of figures ranging from Michael Ovitz to the Clintons.
All that is dispatched too quickly, while other aspects are unnecessarily fawning. For example, movie posters flash by in a way that suggests DreamWorks released nothing but Oscar winners and blockbuster hits.
As for Geffen’s personal life, the doc includes such episodes as his unexpected romance with Cher, his political and philanthropic endeavors, personal musings on what enormous wealth can and cannot buy, and of course a bit about how a “nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn” of humble means fled for Hollywood as soon as he graduated high school.
At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Geffen is shown professing to have “no talent, except for being able to enjoy and recognize it in others.”
Geffen’s skills certainly goes far beyond that, including, as is stated, being “ruthlessly honest.” Yet while that’s a major part of being David Geffen, it’s the one key ingredient “Inventing David Geffen” is lacking.