Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow Celebrate Clive Davis at Radio City Concert

Clive Davis
Elliot Dal Pra London

Anyone seeking a bathroom break after the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the documentary “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives” probably didn’t get one.

Seconds after the film’s last credit rolled past (read Variety’s review), the ornate curtains rose to reveal the dazzling spectacle of Barry Manilow standing in the center of New York’s Radio City Music Hall stage — arms outstretched amid brilliant lights and a sparkling video backdrop— launching directly into the uber melodramatic chorus of his 1973 hit “Could It Be Magic” as Rickey Minor’s 14-piece band surged and swelled and roared like giant waves crashing onto rocky cliffs. Audience members who’d been headed toward the lobby stopped dead in their tracks, eyes wide and jaws agape: Manilow’s entrance was only slightly less attention-grabbing than the arrival of a sun god. (Okay, maybe more of a Sunkist god).

“What a movie!” he shouted. “What a life! Congratulations, Clive! So much music — and I was there!”

The moment, delivered by the artist who relaunched Clive’s career after he was ingloriously fired by Columbia Records in 1973, defined the tone for the evening, the film and the career of the man who is indisputably one of the very greatest record men of all time: Grand and glorious and grandiose and gratuitous all at the same time — and virtually impossible to ignore or forget.

The artists for this tribute concert, which was organized by Clive Davis’ son, attorney Doug Davis, were selected by Tribeca founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal to represent various stages of Clive’s career as a music creative and played thematically or appropriate songs, each taking roughly 15 minutes. Manilow, Davis’ first big breakout at Arista, raced through a Vegas-overload, ADD-level medley containing 30-to-60-second-long segments of virtually each of his greatest hits; the arrangements were a triathlon for Rickey Minor’s razor-sharp band. Earth, Wind & Fire brought both R&B and ‘70s virtuosity; they were joined by schmaltz juggernaut Kenny G for “The Way You Move.” Jennifer Hudson is a relatively recent progeny who paid tribute to the artist that most defines Clive’s abilities as the greatest starmaker in modern music history — and the one most shaped by and associated with him — Whitney Houston. During “I Want to Dance With Somebody,” she went out into the crowd exhorting people to dance, calling out “Where’s Clive?” — stopping briefly to command “Wendy Washington: dance!” to a veteran publicist — before getting a quick turn from the man of the evening.

Several of the other acts represented Clive’s ability to revive careers and give artists second acts they did not expect. Dionne Warwick spoke at length about how, when she was “ready to give up on the music business,” Clive told her “Uh-uh girl, the music business is not ready to give up on you.” At 76 she remains a commanding singer who kept to her lower register as she rode expertly through “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” saving her breath for a long and powerful yet unostentatious note at the close.

Of course, his greatest revival — and one of the greatest popular music singers of all time — closed the show: Aretha, who actually one-upped her Beyonce-level feat of baddassery before President Obama at the Kennedy Center last year, where she shed her fur coat to the floor as she hit the high notes of “Natural Woman.” At Radio City, she was again sporting fur, though this time she walked onstage dragging it on the floor, then dropping it before she’d even made it to the microphone. And while this performance — “Natural Woman” and her biggest hit of the Clive era, “Freeway” — was strong but did not quite reach that show’s peak, it was endearing in other ways. Between songs she said “I’m sure that like a lot of you I’ve been fighting an upper respiratory infection” (how’d she know?) and apologized for missing a few notes due to it (she didn’t miss them by much). Franklin seemed almost reluctant to leave the stage, dancing gently, exhorting the crowd and freestyling on the chorus for several minutes before the bandleader essentially cued her offstage.

Following the screening and concert, artists, industry executives, and friends and family of Davis’ toasted the music legend at an after-party at Tavern on the Green. There, Franklin held court alongside such VIPs as actor Peter Fonda, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, songwriter Desmond Child and Ray Parker, Jr. Among the music biz bigwigs in attendance were Atlantic records group chairman and COO Julie Greenwald, Republic Records chairman Monte Lipman, Warner/Chappell CEO Jon Platt, Apple Music’s Larry Jackson, Scott Seviour and Bozoma Saint John, former Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola with wife Thalía, Lava Records founder Jason Flom and Warner Bros. Records EVP Peter Gray and SVP Andrew Berkowitz. Representing the film industry were Tribeca founders De Niro and Rosenthal, CEO Andrew Essex and EVP Paula Weinstein, president of IM Global Music David Schulhof and IM Global founder & CEO Stuart Ford, among others.

Speaking to Variety on premiere night, the film’s producer Michael Bernstein of Scott Free Productions explained that, with Amazon, Netflix and Apple getting into the doc game (Apple Music bought the rights to “Soundtrack of Our Lives”), “There’s a voracious demand for content … and it’s great for artists.”