Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
The tension between art and commerce is one that plagues American show business in all forms, in pop music you will often hear artists complaining of their work being hemmed in by suits who are obsessed with sticking to popular trends. This is not true of Clive Davis, according to this starry-eyed, entertaining documentary that takes a look at the life and career of one of the recording industry’s most influential executives, a man who entered the business with only a passing interest in the artform before revolutionizing it more than once thanks to his frequently spot-on instincts. He began his career as a lawyer before being hired to work in Columbia’s legal department, then when offered an A & R position accepted it and it changed his life forever. After an unfortunate connection to a payola scandal and accusations of misappropriating funds, he was let go from Columbia and started up Arista Records, bringing the likes of Janis Joplin and Earth, Wind and Fire to music fans with great success. His biggest find, and the subject that receives a lion’s share of attention in this documentary, was his fostering the career of Whitney Houston from the beginning and staying close with her until her untimely death, intimately involved with many of her artistic decisions (like his suggestion that her acting debut in The Bodyguard should be accompanied by a killer soundtrack) while never fully aware of what was happening in her personal life. Davis himself is amiable, candid and, now in his eighties, still full of excitement for the music that he was part of in the past and the trends he continues to follow and explore, the admiration that his artists have for him and the faith they have in his decisions shows that musicians have a long-held belief that, despite being one of the suits, he is on their side. This comes in handy when his own company tries to push him out in his later years, and it is his artists who defend him and help keep him in his job (and his discovery of Alicia Keys proves that he’s still got what it takes to find the hits). With all this wonderful information, it soon becomes clear that this documentary is a puff piece on the man and not an incisive documentary examining him from all angles, it takes into account the times he backed the wrong horses and put out artists who didn’t quite hit, but it glides over other possibilities. All the artists who are on hand to say that he encouraged them, sometimes after some really nasty fights, to change their music in some way testify that he made their work better and is responsible for their songs becoming huge, but surely there are some musicians out there who are still really sore at him for not letting them have their way and who believe that without him they would have achieved more (nobody gets out of this life that easy, especially when they’re successful). What the film has to offer, though, is a lot of interesting information in bullet point summary form, and even more what it provides is the pleasure of a voyage through a music catalogue that never stops; if you weren’t hoping for anything more controversial, you’ll have a wonderful time watching it.