Media mogul David Geffen is perfectly suited to be profiled by the PBS series American Masters: He’s a figure who’s had a profound impact on multiple sectors of popular culture, but one who’s deeply private and rarely grants interviews. Inventing David Geffen manages to capture a frequently candid Geffen, however, one whose stories of working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Neil Young, and Elton John are buttressed by the words of Spielberg, Young, and John (and Tom Hanks and Cher and Slash and Jackson Browne and Steve Martin and a few of the Eagles…)
Geffen, however, is less-suited to discussing his life and career in a press-conference setting, as he was set to do this afternoon at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. Appearing alongside Inventing David Geffen director (and American Masters creator) Susan Lacy, Geffen was a fascinating ball of contradictions: Opinionated, but guarded (Rock Of Ages was a box-office failure because it was a bad movie, he told the press—but went no further); a man who’s clearly lived a full life, though he’s not particularly keen to rehash that life. “I don’t tend to think about the past. I don’t like to talk about myself,” he told the assembled critics—whom, quite naturally, had gathered at the Beverly Hilton to hear Geffen do both of those things. On stage, he projected a balance of humility and supreme self-confidence, one which impeded the sharper questions from the gallery—like one from Hit Fix’s Daniel Fienberg about how Geffen wanted to be portrayed in his American Masters installment, an exchange that turned strangely heated as Geffen pressed the point that he had no input on the content of Inventing David Geffen—as well as the millionth inquiry into whether or not the guest of honor is the subject of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” (BREAKING: He still isn’t.) It was a tense hour of conversation with some momentary relief determined by Geffen’s capricious interest in giving in-depth answers.
Of course, even if Geffen regaled the critics with tales of rooming with Joni Mitchell, explained how he persuaded Bob Dylan to release Planet Waves under the Asylum Records umbrella, and then brought the house down with a medley of “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” and “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” he still would’ve been tripped up by the panel’s most bizarre question. One unidentified attendee (who may or may not be Internet sensation Harvey Sid Fisher) asked Geffen if he’d ever come across an album of songs based on the signs of the zodiac—before moving on to explain that he’d recorded such a record, and if Geffen was interested, he could find all 12 tracks on YouTube. Suffice it to say, the man who once told Art Garfunkel to stay in architecture school hasn’t stumbled upon this masterpiece of song.
It’s that Garfunkel anecdote that stands as an example of why Geffen’s appearance at the press tour was a big deal—but it also explains why he’s such a troublesome guest for an event like a TCA press tour. For all his achievements, he’s still the type of person you want to hear talk about other, more famous and visible people. However, Geffen opened up most readily when questioned about subjects that went beyond his work at Asylum, Elektra, or DreamWorks. His longest response was deeply personal, delving into a false cancer diagnosis and his private anxiety at the height of the AIDS crisis—both of which, it bears mentioning, are addressed in Inventing David Geffen. To that end, notable as Geffen’s presence in Los Angeles was (he’d just come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, and was returning there as soon as the panel wrapped), perhaps the documentary is best left to speak for itself. After all, it features a number of people more willing to talk about David Geffen than the man himself.