Inventing David Geffen debuts tonight at 8 p.m. on most PBS stations, but you should check local listings.
The West Wing episode “20 Hours In L.A.” sees the White House gang questing out to sunny Los Angeles after an influx of Hollywood cash in the form of an opulent fundraiser hosted by multimedia mogul Ted Marcus. As portrayed by a slyly underplaying Bob Balaban, Marcus is all prim confidence as he dresses down Josh Lyman over the president’s failure to publicly support a gay rights issue, blithely canceling the planned event at the last minute. Typical of Aaron Sorkin (pre-Newsroom, anyway), the openly gay Marcus has more to him than his supercilious first impression indicates, his hastily brokered evening face-to-face with an exhausted President Bartlett revealing a willingness to admit that his aggressively monied steamroller approach to the social issues he cares about needs to be tempered by the political experience of presidents who, while arguably as powerful, don’t have billions in the bank and an unerring instinct for success.
In this fictional Democratic administration, President Bartlett is luckier than David Geffen’s former presidential pal Bill Clinton, whose capitulation on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is clearly mirrored by the West Wing storyline. As outlined in the American Masters episode Inventing David Geffen, while Geffen may have made mistakes during his inexorable rise from immigrant tailor’s son to billionaire multimedia magnate, they have rarely been accompanied by any sort of mea culpa. Unless a change in allegiance which serves to help crush the person or organization he formerly championed counts. Either way, as longtime associate David Crosby puts it, “he doesn’t forget, he doesn’t give up—and he always wins.”
Of course, tales of entertainment power players used to getting their own way at any cost are nothing new, but Inventing David Geffen presents its subject as an elusively unique example. Beginning from a working class family in Brooklyn, the path of Geffen’s gradual, nearly unimpeded success is presented, by Geffen and others, in such matter-of-fact terms as to seem inevitable: Finagling a job at the William Morris agency through chutzpah and chicanery. Discovering Laura Nyro, leaving William Morris to champion Nyro full time, and then parlaying her song catalog into his first fortune in 1969. Co-founding the influential Asylum Records, home to artists such as The Eagles and Jackson Browne, then selling it to Warner Communications, the profit adding to that personal fortune. Becoming vice-chair of Warner Brothers pictures, getting fired (in part for asking Clint Eastwood to cut The Outlaw Josey Wales), then immediately founding Geffen Records, Geffen Pictures, and a theatrical production company which collectively produce successful films (Beetlejuice, Interview With The Vampire), musical acts (Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana), and Broadway hits (Little Shop Of Horrors, Cats, Dreamgirls). Teaming up with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg to form DreamWorks, the first new major Hollywood film studio in 50 years.
Each step along the way, as detailed in the film’s two hours, follows the other lockstep, in rhythm with Geffen’s calm, reasonable explanations and the echoing agreement from artists and associates like Lorne Michaels, Don Henley, Neil Young, Tom Hanks, Cher, Jann Wenner and others. All of whom make Geffen’s ascendancy seem as inevitable, and rational, as the tide.
That quiet acquiescence to the inherent rightness of the saga of Geffen’s unparalleled success is the film’s greatest weakness. Sure, there are references to Geffen’s ruthlessness in negotiations, and occasional errors in judgement, but even the few dissenting voices (Henley viewed Geffen’s sale of Asylum as a betrayal, or Young, who was sued by Geffen when his experimental efforts for Geffen Records failed to sell) eventually concede that, with age, their grievances have mellowed. That latter event, especially, should be much more revelatory.
The film presents Asylum Records as having been the idealistic (if very lucrative) product of an absolute “artists first” approach to running a record label, with Geffen choosing singer-songwriters he believed in and pledging at one point, “We’re not going to drop an artist because they don’t sell.” As Geffen Records later encountered some initial setbacks (in large part due to its founder signing established artists to huge George Steinbrenner-esque contracts), he sued Young for, as the singer-songwriter accurately describes it, “being an artist.” Instead of finding anything revealing in this contradiction, Inventing David Geffen assents to its own premise: Geffen, according to Young, “is right 95 percent of the time.” (The suit, filed after Young’s admittedly non-commercial LPs Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ refused to fly off the shelves, was eventually dropped.)
Such laudatory sentiment is hardly new to the American Masters series (just read the title of the program), and it may very well be that Geffen was as destined for inescapable greatness as the film continually suggests. But apart from some occasional analysis that his missteps are rooted in a fear of failure, Inventing David Geffen seems as uncritically impressed with its subject as are its interviewees. His intermittent setbacks are explained away as the world not recognizing that Geffen is supposed to be the most successful boy in the world. And yet he kept gambling and kept winning, exponentially.
Even his late-career abandonment of the Clintons, first Bill, then Hillary (in favor of a young congressman named Barack Obama), reflects well on Geffen. If his lawsuit against Young was, as is presented, a misjudgment caused by his own fear of failure (and eventually rectified), then his disowning of the Clintons is shown as a principled stance against glib politicians who’ve betrayed the public trust.
And, of course, David Geffen’s.