In Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, filmmaker Chris Perkel twice flashes a still of Davis at the storied 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, clad in a tennis sweater. He was then head of CBS’s newly formed records division. The first artist Davis signed was Janis Joplin. Her performance at Monterey made his spine “tingle.” Now a legend in the music business, that image of Davis (no doubt from D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop footage), a standout among the feathers and beads of hippie fashion, led Tribeca Film Festival’s opening night audience to roar with laughter. But Perkel’s use of the still is metaphorical—it cleverly defines his subject. Davis was often out of the mainstream, at times because he was not born to music, and at other times because he was a trailblazer.
Davis was a 28-year old lawyer, working at a firm under contract with CBS in 1960, when a friend recruited him to serve as the company’s assistant counsel. In a 1973 article, Rolling Stone claims that before his arrival at CBS, Davis’s knowledge of music was limited to “Make Believe Ballroom.” While the tunes may not have been edgy, the program’s founder, iconoclast Martin Block, was the first announcer to play music in between news reports. In Soundtrack (and in his autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life), Davis admits that he knew nothing about music or the music business, and that as a boy in a middle-class Jewish family, he had only two career choices, doctor or lawyer.
Born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Davis was orphaned in his late teens. In the documentary, several friends and colleagues say that the record mogul’s style, marked by a sense of urgency, and characterized by his paternal attitude toward his artists, derived from his knowledge of great loss so early in life. The best-known of these relationships was the one he shared with the late Whitney Houston. She was 19 years old when Davis signed her. Perkel devotes a good deal of screen time to their longstanding association.
Soundtrack features interviews with many big names in the music business, including Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and record producer Lou Adler, as well as Davis’s colleagues and employees, among them L.A. Reid whose LaFace label was funded by Davis’s Arista Records. Dozens of the vocalists and musicians he ushered to stardom, or to dramatic comebacks, including Dionne Warwick and Carlos Santana, sing his praises in the documentary. Perkel’s expertly edited puff piece is replete with archival footage, most notably Whitney’s TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show. It chronicles Davis’s rise from assistant counsel to A&R executive (“artist and repertoire” or talent scouting and artist development), and chief executive officer of music divisions at CBS, RCA and Bertelsmann Music Group.
Soundtrack does not refer to the charges brought against Davis in 1975 for falsifying his tax returns, and it deftly dispenses with other difficult material, especially his departure from CBS in 1973 over his alleged involvement in a payola scheme. (The term refers to the illegal practice of record companies paying commercial radio stations to broadcast its records.) Davis was charged with misappropriation of company funds, using the money gained from the payola scheme to pay for his son’s bar mitzvah and for a rental house in Beverly Hills. In the documentary, Davis says he was fired because he was “making too much money.” While many artists, from the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, to Sean "Puffy" Combs and Alicia Keys, praise Davis’s warmth, it is apparent that he was also a highly competitive and controlling executive.
One colleague recounts a battle with Davis over the orchestration on an early Whitney Houston single. Davis thought the demo track was perfect, and did not want it touched. The colleague disagreed, and at some point in their telephone conversation, he told Davis they should hang up before one of them said something they would later regret. Davis agreed, and then never called back. He used Whitney’s demo track to produce the record. Soundtrack almost completely elides Davis’s private life, including his two failed marriages. His longstanding bisexuality, revealed in his autobiography, is also dispensed with in one brief clip.
Perkel succeeds in explaining the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s (inducted in 2000) legendary “golden ear” that consisted mostly of his incredible marketing acumen. Davis both foresaw trends and created them. Reflecting on the Monterey Pop Festival, he says that he knew it marked a pivotal moment, a “musical revolution”—but that’s Davis writing his own biography. An especially wonderful moment in the film is when Davis explains why Whitney was the only one who could put over the George Merrill/Shannon Rubicam song, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” That scene has the ring of authenticity.
While Davis’s talent in many cases was matching a singer to a song, it was his salesmanship that made him a success. In an era when rock n’ roll and R&B radio stations were not playing instrumentals, he wrote letters to the managers of those stations to convince them to play recordings by jazz clarinetist Kenny G—and it worked. Davis celebrated his 85th birthday earlier this month, and was feted at the Radio City Music Hall concert that followed the premier of Soundtrack, by Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Kenny G, among others. It rocked, especially when Hudson, in a tribute to Whitney Houston, and to Davis, invited the audience to join her in singing “I Wanna Dance.”