David Geffen is so powerful, wealthy and connected that he could probably kill this review right now were he so inclined. He is a show business titan; a controversial figure who is revered—and feared—by equal measure. He is perhaps the closest thing we have to the kingpins of old, the Selznicks, the Zanucks. (How fitting that Geffen now lives in Jack Warner’s stunning old mansion.) But like Harvey Weinstein, what most differentiates Geffen from the other powers-that-be in his ranks is an ability to spot talent. As “American Masters: Inventing David Geffen” reveals, he helped break artists as far reaching as Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, and even Guns N’ Roses.
Stellar group, to say nothing of the other artists he oversaw at one point or another, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and The Eagles. Yes, Geffen is deserving of an “American Masters” profile, and Emmy winner Susan Lacy’s film is, like its subject, smart and colorful. It’s also a bit of a letdown, a solid overview of an unparalleled career that never feels quite as intimate or insightful as one would like. We learn Geffen is powerful, wildly intelligent and sometimes vindictive, and that is not news. It’s a good thing, then, that “Inventing David Geffen” is such a brisk, breezy watch, with a list of interviewees that reads like the head table at a Vanity Fair Oscar party: Sandy Gallin, Barry Diller, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Clive Davis and Cher. Some are or were collaborators, some employees, and one girlfriend (Cher!).
The steamroller that is David Geffen began, Lacy shows us, in Brooklyn. “I left the day I graduated high school,” he tells us, moving on to a series of jobs (“I must have had a dozen jobs, and I got fired from all of them”) that culminated with this news flash: “What does an agent have to know? Absolutely nothing.…They bullshit on the phone…I can bullshit on the phone!” You want drive? As a mailroom employee, Geffen, looking a bit like a young Artie Ziff, arrived early every day to make sure he would snag the letter from UCLA telling his employers that he had lied on his resume. As an agent, his first “get” was The Youngbloods (“Get Together”), but it was Nyro, the introspective singer-songwriter, who changed his life. He quit his agency job to manage her, and the result made them both millions.
The film’s most fascinating story—one wonders if this, more than anything else, is what made Geffen the “shark” he became—involves Nyro’s betrayal. Geffen started his own label, Asylum Records, and announced that his friend would be the label’s first signing. It was not to be—Nyro signed with Columbia. The late singer is far less well-known today than many of the female artists of the '70s (Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon), and this choice could be part of the reason why. “She made a very bad decision,” Geffen states, the hurt still evident in his voice. The result of Asylum’s creation? Enormous success, and, oddly, a love affair with Cher. As Elton John puts it, “It was the odd couple.” (A magazine cover asked, “Who’s man enough for this woman?” “Clearly," Geffen says, “I was not.”)
We breezily move through the remainder of Geffen’s career—a merger with Elektra Records, a brief and unhappy stint as a film executive with Warner Bros., the birth of Geffen Records, and, eventually, a big-money buyout—with occasional personal details. (Geffen did not “officially” come out of the closet until an AIDS benefit in 1992, but as Lacy shows, it was an open secret.) The founding of DreamWorks SKG serves as the culmination of Geffen’s career, but Lacy glosses over the studio’s so-so success rate. And while we get glimpses of Geffen the tyrant, it’s hard not to feel like his involvement in the film kept the roar to a minimum. (As Jeffrey Wells points out on Hollywood Elsewhere, the late Tom King’s 2001 biography, “The Operator,” likely offers a more probing analysis of the man; Wells refers to a 2001 New York magazine article on Geffen’s involvement with King’s book that is a must-read.)
There are many unique little stories throughout—Geffen telling the Army he had “homosexual tendencies” to get out of serving, a great story of an altercation with Clint Eastwood, the sad tale of John Lennon’s assassination and Geffen’s friendship with Yoko Ono, his lawsuit against Neil Young for not being commercial enough—but the film always feels a little too close to its subject to really penetrate, and its style is talking head, talking head, talking head. Still, it’s wildly entertaining, and full of sharp-as-a-tack quotes, none more so than Jackson Browne’s word to Geffen after selling Geffen Records: “Who would’ve thought it would take a billion dollars to make you happy?” If that doesn’t demonstrate why there is no one quite like David Geffen, I’m not sure what does. [B]
"Inventing David Geffen" airs tonight at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).