Q&A WITH FILMMAKER
Q: What interested you about making a documentary about Clive Davis’s life and career?
Going into it, the most obvious attraction was the incredible influence Clive has had on popular culture and music over the last 50 years. The opportunity to talk about Clive was really an opportunity to talk about popular music since the social revolution of the 1960s. If you’re interested in music and culture and art, he’s a great prism into some interesting conversations.
But as I dug in and got to know Clive and his story better, I found it to be inspirational and resonant in ways I didn’t expect. He’s led about as good a life as you can: He’s been passionate about what he does, extraordinarily successful, beloved by the people he works with, and has a close connection with his family. At 85, he’s completely engaged and active and appreciative of the world. I just felt it was an inspiring story that was worth telling.
Q: Why was it important to tell his story now?
The world of popular music has changed so much over the last few years. The film gave us an opportunity to look back at a golden era when the music business was at its most relevant. On a larger level, though, the film is about the ways music presents a universal truth that people connect to across cultures, across genres and across generations. Over the two years the production unfolded, as tensions within the culture came to the fore and people were feeling more fractured and jittery than at any point in my lifetime, it became even clearer how important that connection was. And nobody has a broader musical scope than Clive.
Q: What was Clive’s ongoing involvement in the making of the film?
He was part of the process of approving of me as the director, but from that point forward he made it clear that the filmmaking team should have unfiltered access and the ability to reach out to whomever we wanted and talk about whatever we wanted. Nothing was off the table, nothing was managed. I got to know Clive very well and I continued to interview him throughout the project. And it was like having the world’s greatest music supervisor at your disposal. But in terms of the creative decision making, we were wholly independent and that was very important to everybody.
Q: How did you decide on the format you used — a combination of archival footage and current-day interviews with no narrator?
I knew that the music and the relationships to the artists had to be the dominant thread. And the fact that we had access to so much unbelievable music and so many seminal artists sort of made the decision for us that it was going to be the meat and potatoes of the film.
Q: How did you get access to all of those songs and artists?
The artists Clive worked with have such warm relationships and recollections of their time with him, they were all incredibly eager to participate. With very few exceptions, everybody said yes to us, thankfully. It was really luxurious in that way. We had more great artists available to us than we could schedule. And we’re talking about heavy hitters like Paul Simon and Patti Smith and Puffy Combs who don’t do that many interviews.
The challenge was always going to be doing them justice and making some really hard decisions about what we could and couldn’t use. I did 45-minute interviews, on average, with 58 people, all of whom are fascinating and extremely successful at what they do. And you could only get so much in the film. That was the hardest part. But I think we did a good job of staying true to the through-line of Clive’s relationship to the work. That made boiling it down a little easier.
Q: Was it a similar situation with the archival footage? How did you go about researching it and selecting what to use?
We had two great archive producers, Susan Ricketts and Sam Kerzner, who came on at the very beginning of the process. We knew that anything Clive was in we wanted. Sony had their own archive with some really great gems, rare elements that no one’s seen, including Clive reading the “Blinded by the Light” lyrics and the footage of Kenny G walking down the street selling his records. And then we were constantly trying to identify which artists were going to be featured and which songs we might use from them, and then gathering the most interesting and intimate footage we could.
Q: In addition to directing the film, you also edited it. What was that like?
It was a bit of a masochistic decision in retrospect, but I’m glad I did it. It was a lot to stay on top of. I think we have 130 music cues. I know one of the reasons I got the job was that I have a background in editing high-volume, archive-heavy documentaries, including Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty. So I was excited about trying to dig the story out of all this material. We brought on a second editor for a stretch, Eileen Meyer, who did really great work on the Whitney section. And I had a fantastic assistant editor, Blake Everhart.
Q: Clive’s relationship with Whitney Houston plays a prominent role in the film. Why did you feel it was important to emphasize that?
It’s sort of the emotional core of the film. His creative dynamic with Whitney was the culmination of all the skills he had developed before. He found her, he utilized his promotional abilities to break her and give her the best opportunities, and he picked all her songs. Plus she was just the biggest and brightest star. So professionally we knew she was central. But just as importantly — or maybe more importantly — they were so close. He found her when she was 19 and they had this long fruitful personal and professional relationship together, and it was rife with so much drama on the back of such tragic circumstances, that we just felt like if there was one person you wanted to highlight to give the best insight to Clive and his relationship to his artists, it was going to be Whitney.
That said, it was important to all of us, to the whole team, that the Whitney story really showcase her talent and not just become another rehash of her highly publicized downfall. We had access to her greatest performances and we wanted to make sure we were able to remind people — or reveal to people who might be too young to remember — just how transcendent she was as a performer, why she was who she was before she became tabloid fodder.
Q: What surprised you once you started researching the film and talking to people about Clive?
I think one of the surprises for me was the level of Clive’s creative engagement. I knew he was a tremendous executive; the track record spoke for itself. But in talking to the artists, particularly the artists from the Arista years, it became evident that he really was a collaborator. He was finding all their songs and in many cases had a vision for how they should be recorded and it was all a part of this three-dimensional plan to put these artists into positions to succeed. It was a very creative enterprise from top to bottom and the artists saw it that way as well.
Also surprising for me were the close relationships he had with these artists. Going in, I thought, okay, I know Clive’s point of view based on his autobiography, but I don’t know if when I start talking to these other 50 people the story they tell is going to be the same story he is telling. And it was gratifying for us that by and large his point of view aligned with everyone else’s. He has these warm, empathetic relationships with the artists, and that’s why they came out on his behalf. He’s not writing their checks anymore. And a lot of these artists are people for whom authenticity and integrity are part and parcel of who they are — their brand — and they’re not going to come out and kiss the ass of some executive they had a marginal relationship with 40 years ago. Patti Smith is not going to blow smoke up some executive’s ass. Neither is Simon Cowell. Or Puffy Combs. Or any of these guys. They came out because they have this affection for Clive. You always worry with people who achieve at that level, if it comes at the expense of a certain kind of humanity or generosity, and with him it really doesn’t.
Q: The film doesn’t go into much detail about Clive’s personal life. Why did you choose to include his coming out as bisexual in 2013?
I thought his bisexuality spoke to that borderless way in which Clive approaches the world. The fact that he doesn’t fall victim to a certain kind of identity politics, and he doesn’t see things as mutually exclusive, I think, is one of the ways in which he’s so open to so much of the world around him. Particularly in music, people get very frightened. If you’re a rock guy, you’re maybe not a hip-hop guy. If you like this you don’t like that because so much of it helps you self-identify. And Clive could walk from a meeting with Patti Smith to a meeting with Barry Manilow and not be inauthentic in either. And I think that’s ultimately where we all want to be, where you can appreciate the value in a whole range of things. I felt his sexuality was an extension of that. He doesn’t see that as being a core identifying feature, like you have to be gay or straight, in the way that much of the world has traditionally. And I think he was ahead of the curve in that people are starting to come to understand that this strictly binary approach can be counterproductive, arbitrary, and not necessarily honest.
Q: What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives?
I hope people come away inspired both by the way Clive helped nurture and present some of the best music of the last half century and by the way he navigated his life, persevered through challenges, and stayed open to appreciating the world. And I hope it renews and refreshes their love of some musical gems they might have forgotten about from the last 50 years. But mostly I hope they come away entertained.