Janis Joplin, Santana, Michael Bolton and Whitney Houston. A montage of performances by these artists kicks off the compelling new documentary, “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives.”
Those artists, along with Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, Barry Manilow and The Notorious B.I.G. are just some of music’s superstars whom the legendary record executive and producer has introduced to the world stage during a career spanning fifty years.
The film, directed and edited by Chris Perkel and informed by Davis’ 2012 memoir “The Soundtrack of My Life,” traces his beginnings as a corporate attorney for CBS/Columbia who got plucked to run the record division. Soon thereafter, in 1967, he signed Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival, his first huge hit-maker.
With dozens of interviews with artists and music executives including Jimmy Iovine, Sean Combs, Berry Gordy and Simon Cowell and hundreds of hours of archival footage from which to cull, Perkel explores the triumphs and tragedies of Davis’ life and career in a tight two hours.
“The biggest challenge was dealing with 50 years of popular music. We needed to identify the big story beats we needed to cover, the big ideas or artists that were emblematic–like Barry Manilow, not only because of his stature even among Clive’s artists but because how his story dovetails into a conversation about A&R and songwriting,” Perkel said. “We had the luxury of interviews with more than 50 great artists, any one of which is with someone who is extraordinarily successful. The challenge was boiling it down because there was no shortage of great material to work with at every turn.”
The Atkin Report sat down with Davis at the Beverly Hills Hotel last week to discuss the film, which is currently playing in Los Angeles in New York for a qualifying run after premiering at Tribeca earlier this year and playing at other film festivals. It will soon begin streaming on Apple Music.
Hillary Atkin: The film touches on some of your biggest challenges including the death of your parents, your firing from Columbia Records, the fake invoice scandal that tied you up legally for years and from which you were exonerated, the reorganization at BMG. How did you overcome these challenges and to what do you attribute your success?
Clive Davis: Perhaps a love of life—but it was shaken to its core by the early death of my parents, which has affected me my whole life. I would say the professional one that was traumatic was the firing form Columbia Records. With all the benefits and good luck in my life–and the fulfillment–that was bad luck. You get in the middle of an unexpected witchhunt that gets you embroiled in a national investigation. The vindication never gets the headlines the original [scandal] did. I loved everything I was doing at Columbia so that two-year period of 1973 and ’74 was extremely challenging. It was great to find up on that screen in the documentary the check I got from CBS for $1 million for company I had just formed, Arista Records.
Atkin: There was a major corporate reorganization at parent company BMG that also changed the course of your career. What actually happened, as many people at the time thought it was an instance of age discrimination?
Davis: I was making tens of millions of dollars each year and at the Bertelsmann [Music Group] company, a German executive at 60 had to move out of the company. So they threw open the possibility that I would become chairman of worldwide creativity which would have taken me out of operations but most significantly, it would stop my profit share. I was making $20 million a year. They never wanted to separate from me. We’d had the biggest year ever [in 1999], with the success of Santana’s “Supernatural” and me getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other industry honors. To keep me, they had to invest $150 million into a brand new company [J Records]—of which I would own 50%–and give me five new artists that included Alicia Keys, but most significantly, all 18 top executives from Arista came with me. They never wanted to lose me and had to pay handsomely for the ability to stay in business with me.
Atkin: Surveying the landscape of popular music over the past 40-50 years, what are the high points that stand out to you?
Davis: You’ll see them all in this documentary. Chronologically, certainly the Monterey Pop Festival [in 1967] was the epiphany that got me started. Without it, the process of signing artists wouldn’t have begun. I’m blessed there are so many high points. Every signing of an artist that became important in music is a special memory. When I run into Bruce Springsteen, Earth, Wind & Fire, Alicia Keys, Steven Tyler, even those artists I reclaimed, like Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart and Dionne Warwick that I never believed would fade, there’s such warmth there.
Beginning Arista, with Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” going to Number 1. Everything with Patti Smith is a major memory. The years with Whitney are historic, the records, the seven Number 1s consecutively, “The Bodyguard.” We shared some incredible moments. And among the biggest, the reunion of Santana and the heights that “Supernatural” reached. It gets a laugh in the film when Ahmet Ertegun talks about taking a man in his 50s who plays guitar and doesn’t sing a note with an album that takes him to a world record of Grammys and sales.
I consider myself fortunate that in a very competitive business that’s constantly changing that there have been so many wonderful years.
Davis: No, you don’t think that and you don’t envision that. You’ve looking for headliners of tomorrow with a long-lasting career, not one-hit wonders, not something ephemeral– but you don’t think historic records would be broken. Now looking back at the artists and seeing Springsteen sell out everywhere in the world, and Billy Joel in the top ranks–seeing their longevity and how many have become all-time greats, like Alicia at a young age who is respected all over the world. I always say I get paid a lot to worry. I assume more the impediments to success and not that this will be all-time. I’ve been more than fulfilled.
Atkin: What is the backstory of the clip showing you reading the lyrics to Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” to record company branch managers around the country?
Davis: A number of artists were coming in as folk-rock and lumped in as the next Bob Dylan. It was not to their advantage. Knowing that and introducing the launch of “Greetings From Asbury Park,” I said I’m going to read the lyrics because no one will make an analogy to Dylan–Springsteen was so different. I had forgotten I did it. I never saw the video until the documentary uncovered it. I was startled, and audiences get a big kick out of it.
Atkin: What are some of your other favorite clips that bring back fond memories?
Davis: The first one is Monterey, being surrounded by everyone with flowers in their hair, and there I am in the midst of it. It’s a real eye-opener and great to see it utilized by Chris. Of course every time you see Janis sing “Piece of my Heart and “Me and Bobby McGee,” it reminds me of how unbelievable her talent was. I’m very touched by so many aspects and specific recollections of artists like Simon and Garfunkel, separately, reflecting on feeling like the tempo of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” precluded it from being a hit. I stood for non-formulaic thinking and the unique opportunity to do what’s not expected. To see the impact to this day was unexpected. I was shocked to see Santana skate in his audition with Ahmet. The group wanted to go with Atlantic but he felt a connection with me. It gets a tremendous response. It’s great filmmaking and personally I didn’t know about it and it was great to see it.
Atkin: Your relationship with Whitney Houston was such a big part of your life–and of this film. It must have been difficult to look back at some of the footage, especially of the day she died, the night of your annual Grammy party.
Davis: The idea of Chris had to play the demo of “I Want to Dance with Somebody” and then see the difference when Whitney sang it later was special, as is seeing Whitney on the Merv Griffin show as an 18-year-old girl – that’s what she looked and sounded like. You do see at the end the power and the voice she had. The whole Whitney sequence in the film is tremendously moving. Chris has captured the uniqueness of Whitney and the special place she holds in the hearts of her music industry colleagues. What he chose from the Grammy party and should it have taken place the night of her death, including Pat Houston approving. Whitney was there for that party. You don’t stop the Grammy Awards. You see the music community needed to be together to deal with this shocking loss. The film is replete with moments that evoke an emotional response.
Atkin: What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the documentary?
Davis: I feel that if you love music, you will love hearing 130 song bites. These are not just hit records. So many are indeed the soundtracks of our lives. You are going to love listening to it. The common denominator is that it is the story of contemporary music of the past four or five decades. You have the musical pleasure but also emotional involvement. There was strong word-of-mouth at the festivals it’s played at and lengthy standing ovations. That obviously makes you feel good.
(“Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives” streams on Apple Music beginning October 3.)