He is the record executive who finally figured out how to get the Grateful Dead, the original jam band, on the singles chart. Clive Davis also signed a few of his own discoveries you might remember, like Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. Frankly, just signing Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company to Columbia Records pretty much guaranteed him a place in the music industry history books. It is hard not to take a “gee whiz” approach to Davis’s career, so Chris Perkel doesn’t even try throughout the briskly nostalgic Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, the opening night film of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Originally recruited for Columbia/CBS’s legal department, Davis was elevated to head the music department almost (if not entirely) by accident. However, once he was there, he quickly learned to trust his ears and instincts. Liberating the label from influential A&R man (and sing-along bandleader) Mitch Miller’s anti-rock biases, Davis signed acts like Joplin, Santana, Chicago, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen, many of whom panned out over time.
Despite making pots of money for Columbia, Davis was forced out after a manufactured payola scandal broke in the media (at least that is Team Clive’s side of the story and Perkel never questions it). Of course, he landed on his feet, founding Arista, a new record label subsidiary for Columbia Pictures (no relation to his former employer) nearly from scratch. His signings were eclectic (Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Gil Scott-Heron, and The Dead), but almost uniformly successful. Perversely, history would repeat itself when Davis was forced out at the peak of Arista’s commercial performance, for apparent reasons of ageism. Yet, Davis would again have the last laugh at J Records.
Let’s be honest, if you want to make a documentary about someone with Davis’s level of industry power and secure the participation of artists such as Springsteen, Bob Weir, Patti Smith, Cissy Houston, Carlos Santana, Simon and Garfunkle (separately, not together) as well as collaborators like Gamble & Huff and Simon Cowell, by airing a lot of dirty laundry. However, from a viewer’s perspective, the perfunctory and defensive treatment of the Columbia/CBS scandal raises more suspicions than it dismisses.
Still, it is tough to beat Davis’s career retrospective for its nostalgia value. It is kind of mind-blowing Davis launched Whitney Houston’s career on the Merv Griffin Show, but Perkel has the video to prove it. Or how about digging “[Have You Heard from] Johannesburg,” perhaps the grooviest, swingingest protest song ever, from Scott-Heron, whom Davis rightly credits as the original rapper? Remember when American Idol was a big deal? It was Davis’s J Records that immediately whisked the winners into the studio.
At least Perkel deals forthrightly with Whitney Houston’s very tragic and public meltdown. On the other hand, he spends a disproportionate about of time on Davis’s saccharine creation, Kenny G, which will tarnish his image with a lot of hipper viewers. Still, you have to give Davis credit for his willingness to back comeback vehicles for past chart-toppers, like Rod Stewart’s American Songbook releases and Santana’s Smooth.