They don’t make ’em like Jerry Weintraub anymore. Born in Brooklyn, he quickly climbed the ladder, earning early success in the music business, working with a staggering array of talent including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, John Denver and more. Once he conquered the music game, Weintraub moved over to the movie business making a name for himself with Robert Altman‘s “Nashville” and going on to put his mark on films like “Diner,” the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy and “The Karate Kid.” It’s been a hell of a ride for the producer who, now in his ’70s, shows no sign of slowing down and said recently, “the word ‘retirement’ it’s not in my vocabulary—they’re gonna take me out with my boots on.”
With decades of work behind him, Weintraub undoubtedly has more than enough stories to spill about his life working alongside some of the biggest personalities — and egos — in the music and movie world. He recently published his memoir, “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead” and is front and center of his own documentary “His Way.” Director Douglas McGrath (“Emma,” “Infamous“) gathers up a crew of big celebs and Weintraub collaborators including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, James Caan and Steven Soderbergh (who executive produces the film) to weigh in on Weintraub and what emerges is less a portrait than a chummy valentine that doesn’t ask much in the way of hard questions.
To be fair, the first part of Weintraub’s story is very much a Horatio Alger-style tale. The son of gem salesman, Weintraub learned how to hustle from this father who traveled around the country earning a living. His trick was taking a fairly worthless sapphire, polishing it up and naming it The Star Of Arbadan. With such an exotic name creating the allure, his father made sure he was met at train stations with an armed guard and the press followed. Later, he would invite local jewelers to examine the stone and in the process, sell his actual, valuable wares right to them. So no wonder that Weintraub’s first foray into the music business started on, well, not a lie exactly, but a well-stretched truth. Seeing an open position in the MCA music department, Weintraub got himself a job by claiming to be an agent at William Morris (he actually worked in the mailroom). From there he quickly ascended the corporate ladder and was soon booking and managing acts.
His first big coup — and an early sign that the film will gloss over any of the more disturbing or dirtier patches of his life — was securing singer Jane Morgan. But in doing so, he also snagged her from husband saying, “We worked together professionally for at least an hour-and-a-half before we slept together.” And while everyone kind of laughs it off it’s the first sign that “His Way” will politely hide anything discomforting under the carpet. Another incident that gets short shrift is Weintraub’s relationship with John Denver. The producer claims that Denver confronted him and asked him directly if he wanted to know why he was severing their professional relationship, with Weintraub refusing an explanation saying he wasn’t interested. Denver notes in his autobiography, “…I’d bend my principles to support something he wanted of me. And of course every time you bend your principles — whether because you don’t want to worry about it, or because you’re afraid to stand up for fear of what you might lose — you sell your soul to the devil.” There is much more story here but it gets ignored, and the same goes Weintraub’s for movie company which he founded in the ’80s and saw quickly shuttered after a string of poorly performing films that nearly got him tossed from the business for good.
But the film’s surface-level approach goes for his successes too. His first film, “Nashville” which was having trouble getting backing, is portrayed is just another notch in his belt. There is no look at what struggles he may have encountered in getting the film made, or what his first impressions of the movie world were. The same goes for the “Diner” segment which spends only a brief time talking about the film and showing a short clip. For “The Karate Kid” we get an interesting anecdote about Weintraub’s initial reluctance to cast Pat Morita but very little else. Even with the “Ocean’s Eleven” films there isn’t much insight other than everyone recounting what a fabulous time they had making it. No one has a better insight into how Hollywood has shifted over the past few decades than Weintraub, but the way “His Way” tells it, it’s all been gravy. There is a hint that along the way Weintraub also earned his fair share of enemies — it’s impossible not to in the movie biz — but there is no word from any dissenters, or anyone who had a slightly less than amazing time working with him. Later, the all-too-short documentary — it runs slightly under 90 minutes — spends an inordinate amount of time on Weintraub’s personal living situation. He’s not divorced, but basically lives with his younger girlfriend with full approval from his wife. He’s kinda got a Charlie Sheen thing going on. And that’s somewhat interesting but you wish this much time was devoted to the various accomplishments and other aspects of his career.
Yet, it’s undeniable that Weintraub is an engaging storyteller, and there are more than a few stories from both his personal and professional life that are entertaining, even fascinating. But “His Way” is ultimately a trifle: a love letter to a hard-working producer who has built up an impressive client list and run of films, as well as relationships with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, and lived to tell about it. It’s not the best movie about the movies you’re likely to see, but if you’re even remotely curious about the business — particularly how it was done in the old days — than “His Way” is worth a peek. [C]
“His Way” premieres tonight on HBO at 9 PM.