By the early 1970s, as the counterculture was dissolving and reconfiguring, there were new pop-star archetypes on the horizon that we still tend to think of — the glam rocker, the sensitive singer-songwriter, the hair-band metal strutter, the prog-rock wizard, the belting pop chanteuse, the punk rocker. But there was another figure of the era who, for a while, was every bit as present but a little less in-your-face, not to mention a lot less respectable: the soft-rock geek, with his too-square-to-be-hip leisure suits and his blow-dried mullet parted in the middle and his caressingly sentimental piano chords and his almost sleazy sincerity. This was, and is, a figure out of a Will Ferrell movie — not “Anchorman” but “Soft Rock Star.” He was Eric Carmen, he was Stephen Bishop, he was Gilbert O. Sullivan, he was the grinning resplendent king of them all, Barry Manilow.
David Foster, the subject of the new documentary “David Foster: Off the Record,” was one of those people: a post-hippie easy-listening avatar of have-you-ever-been-mellow pop. With Foster, though, there was a crucial difference. Born in British Columbia in 1949, he had a brief, hapless fling with rock ‘n’ roll (he was in a band of nerds who, in the late ‘60s, played back-up for Chuck Berry), and after moving to L.A. in 1972 he formed early AOR bands like Skylark, who had a Top 10 hit with “Wildflower,” and the tellingly named Airplay. But when his career as a pop star failed to pan out, it didn’t take long for him to become a sought-after session musician and, ultimately, a record producer.
As a kid, Foster learned to play every instrument and was a wizard on the piano. But what he brought to the role of producer/composer wasn’t just hooky expertise and a certain kind of lush slick sugar polish. He brought a vision. He was still every inch that soft-rock guy, only now he was the one controlling the spaceship. He didn’t just want to make ear candy — he wanted to blast off. He wanted to build a cathedral of heartrending sound.
This has been a film year packed with terrific pop, rock, and jazz documentaries: “David Crosby: Remember My Name” and “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas” and “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” the upcoming Bruce Springsteen concert film “Western Stars.” But it’s still highly unusual, in the world of music docs, to come across a movie like “David Foster: Off the Record.”
It’s the story of a record producer — but this isn’t George Martin, or some hipster auteur like Don Was or Brian Eno or Dr. Dre or Daniel Lanois or Rick Rubin or Glen Ballard. Foster became the recording-console virtuoso of sink-into-your-pillow middlebrow smash hits by the likes of Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Andrea Bocelli, Toni Braxton, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Bublé. He’s the one who made over Chicago into a pedestal for Peter Cetera, who put the flame in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” whose idea of a supergroup was getting Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder in the same place to sing “That’s What Friends Are For” (not to mention composing the Stevie harmonica intro that gave the song its succulent taffy pull).
David Foster, in other words, is the kind of one-man blockbuster machine who gets a ton of respect from the corporate music establishment — the record companies, the Grammys — but not from the edgier media types who tend to establish what pop cachet is. They might describe the songs Foster produces as overblown (Rolling Stone called him the master of “bombastic pop kitsch”) or, on a generous day, as guilty pleasures.
Yet since I’m a critic, let me be clear about where I stand. In June of 1986, I went by myself to a Friday matinee of “The Karate Kid Part II,” a movie I didn’t much like. As it ended, a song came up over the closing credits that I’d never heard before — it was Peter Cetera singing “Glory of Love.” I listened to that chorus (“I am a man…who will fight…for your hon-uh”), and I thought, for a moment, I was hearing the sound of God.
I walked out of the grimy ’80s multiplex I was in with the heart-on-the-sleeve valor of that song — the devotion of it — ringing in my head, and it stayed there for days. That’s the power of a certain kind of pop: not art pop, but unabashed shlock pop, the kind that bypasses all toughness and reason. At a moment like that, a song like “Glory of Love,” in its way, can be as transporting as anything by the Beatles or Bach. And to say that means either one of two things: 1) you’re a loser and have no taste, or 2) the cool people who are totally above that sort of thing are mostly lying about it. In this case, I’ll let the reader decide for him or herself.
I take a schlock-pop artist like David Foster seriously, but I only wish “David Foster: Off the Record” took him just as seriously. The movie is okay; directed by Barry Avrich, it’s a once-over-lightly portrait that teeters between offering a fascinating close-up look at how the sausage of pop gets made and being a kind of infomercial. Since the music of David Foster is all about connecting with a mass audience, swelling those numbers by swelling your heart (he has won 16 Grammys, been nominated for 47, and has sold half a billion records worldwide), a movie that presents him as an icon of success isn’t totally off-base, but it’s still most valuable for telling us stories of how he does what he does.
We don’t get much detail about how Foster forged a wall of synthesizers to create Barbra Streisand’s 1985 cover version of “Somewhere,” though there’s a good story about how he drove over to her house in Malibu to play it for her (the door was answered by Elizabeth Taylor), and when he did, Babs swooned. She was right to. The Foster sound can be an awfully lush layer cake, but its ethereal secret is the air that’s built into it — the way the sound breathes.
Foster became a power player on the strength of his skills — in 1979, he co-wrote the majestic Earth, Wind & Fire song “After the Love Is Gone.” But also on the strength of his personality. As he built a reputation for crafting hits, he became a lord of the studio, almost Spielbergian in his aura. One of the best sections of the movie is about how he destroyed the band Chicago in order to save it, essentially conspiring with Peter Cetera, who was then the bass player, to remake the group with Cetera as lead singer. Recording “Chicago 16,” he played down the horns (which was like doing a Van Halen record without Eddie’s guitar), and he had to go to war with the veteran band members, like John Pankow, to do it. They’re interviewed here, and what’s clear is that however pissed off at Foster they were at the time, their bank accounts now agree with him.
Foster put Natalie and the late Nat King Cole together in “Unforgettable,” launched Celine Dion into the stratosphere, and presided over recording the earthquake of heartache that was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” There are a lot people to credit for that song: Dolly Parton (who first wrote and recorded it in 1973), Linda Ronstadt (who did a surprisingly unfamous cover version in 1975), Kevin Costner (who came up with the idea of starting the song a capella), and, of course, Whitney Houston herself, the greatest pop singer of her time. But Foster gave her voice a sublime bed — the way the strings come in so softly, a single drum beat rocking it into the next dimension. Ironically, it was Clive Davis who insisted, over Foster’s tirade of obscenities, on using the “rough mix,” a version Foster the perfectionist wanted to re-record.
Foster, who in the ’80s looked like a John Tesh sort of fellow, now resembles a lounge-lizard version of Pierce Brosnan — handsome, but with a power vibe that comes off him. He doesn’t look like someone you’d want to mess with, and the film hints at the difficult side of his personality when it touches on his relationships with women. He has been married five times and has five daughters, most of whom, by his own admission, he’d cut out on by the time they were in grade school. Because of his marriages to people like Linda Thompson and Yolanda Hadid, he became, for a time, a staple of reality-TV shows like “The Princess of Malibu” and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” where his short fuse was on display. Those shows probably added more baggage to his image than he bargained for. The Foster we see in “Off the Record” emerges as a contradiction — a romantic idealist who is also, perhaps, a bit of a cad. Then again, maybe it takes someone like that to portray love as a plateau of unearthly rapture.