American Masters Review – Inventing David Geffen

Recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first film biography on music mogul David Geffen was screened as part of the upcoming programming slate for the Emmy Award-winning PBS series American Masters.  The opening title sequence emphasizes the accomplishments of Geffen as it features a massive collage of archival photographs, album covers and movie posters which the native of Brooklyn, New York had a role in producing.

Key to the production is the participation of the title character who displays a frank openness in discussing the successes and failures in his career.  What is striking is the ability of David Geffen to turn adversity into a new business opportunity.  Lacking the educational requirements to join the William Morris Agency, he forged his academic credentials and later after a six month vigil intercepted and altered a letter exposing the lie.  When the William Morris Agency would not represent musician Laura Nyro, Geffen became her agent; when the performer was reluctant to tour, he established a publishing company with Nyro and had other music artists record her songs.  When record companies would not sign Jackson Browne, Geffen expanded his management company with Elliot Roberts to include Asylum Records.  

Life has not been filled without disappointments and tragedies.  David Geffen viewed it as a devastating act of betrayal when Laura Nyro chose to stay with Columbia Records.  At the age of the 33, he was misdiagnosed with bladder cancer which caused Geffen to reassess what was important to him.  A love affair with Cher burned out after 18 months and good friends were dying from AIDS which led him to donate millions to medical research and to publicly declare his homosexuality.  The legendary ruthlessness and mercurial temper is touched upon with the only major episode explored being the decision to sue Neil Young for creating songs that where uncharacteristic of him.  For Young, he believes for Geffen that the art of the deal was his stage.  Jackson Browne talks about overhearing telephone negotiations conducted by his agent that caused him cringe due to the audacious threats being made.

Clever animated segments which have a cutout and paste quality fill in the gaps such as illustrating a recorded conversation between David Geffen and Clive Davis from Columbia Records.  There is a huge wealth of archival of footage on display which is accompanied by talking head interviews with Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Elton John, Don Henley, Nora Ephron, Mike Nichols, and Irving Azoff.  Joni Mitchel was inspired to write a tribute to Geffen who at the time had been fired from Warner Bros. Pictures; it features the classic lines, “I was a free man in Paris/ I felt unfettered and alive/ There was nobody calling me up for favours/ And no one’s future to decide/ You know I’d go back there tomorrow/ But for the work I’ve taken on/ Stoking the star maker machinery/ Behind the popular song.”

During his acceptance speech for being inducted at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, David Geffen stated, “I have no talent except to be able to enjoy and recognize it in others.  I love music, the movies, Broadway and wanted to spend my life in the support of those creative people.”  Inventing David Geffen is as engaging as the man himself and you can see for yourself as the television premiere airs Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

Photo credits: Joel Bernstein, Henry Diltz, and Graham Nash.

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