PBS’ ‘American Masters’ highlights David Geffen’s influence on entertainment

11/16/2012 8:00 AM

05/16/2014 8:19 PM

David Geffen has a lot of friends, and they all plan to stay that way.

The showbiz mogul’s rise is a classic American fairy tale: Dyslexic kid leaves Brooklyn for Hollywood with no discernible talent beyond his ambitions, becomes a billionaire and buys Jack Warner’s mansion. PBS’ “American Masters: Inventing David Geffen” tells the story with the help of a dizzying array of musicians and Hollywood players.

Geffen has made so many people rich and famous that everyone from Tom Hanks to Joni Mitchell lines up to sit on a couch and talk about his roller-coaster career in music, movies and theater. If there are pop culture consumers out there who have never heard of Geffen, they should recognize the Eagles, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Cats.” Not bad for a guy who started out by lying his way into a mailroom job at William Morris Agency.

Geffen cooperated with Susan Lacy’s film, and though he was a legendary party animal in his youth, the result is anything but a tell-all. What is telling is the way his associates speak of him in warlike terms: “Brutal.” “Machiavellian.” “Relentless.” “The Medici of rock ’n’ roll.”

David Crosby, who turned to Geffen for help when he wanted to join forces with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, recalls, “We knew that we were in a shark pool in the music business, and we wanted our own shark.”

Perhaps the legalities of record contracts aren’t as exciting as concert clips, and “Inventing David Geffen” keeps the inside baseball to a minimum. The overall impression is of Geffen constantly on the phone for two decades, berating an entire industry into succumbing to his will.

But between the yelling, he was a nurturing father figure to singer/songwriters such as Laura Nyro and Jackson Browne. When no record label would sign Browne, Geffen founded Asylum Records so he could sign him himself.

It was during this period that he supported Glenn Frey and the rest of the Eagles on small salaries for years while they perfected their sound. It was a busy time: Geffen also recruited Bob Dylan for a tour, got arrested for carrying an artist’s weed on a plane and fell in love with Cher.

Geffen, who is gay, had never had a relationship with a woman before, but he and Cher lived together for 18 months. To hear the two of them tell it, their relationship ran its course with everyone parting amicably. “Inventing David Geffen” doesn’t gloss over the public tantrums Geffen had after Gregg Allman entered the picture; it ignores them completely. No mention is made, either, of Geffen’s involvement in severing Cher’s business ties from Sonny Bono.

After a lot of Cher-related therapy sessions, Geffen decided he needed a change, so he went to work as an executive for Warner Bros.’ movie division, stepping on toes left and right. One of the incidents that led to his hasty dismissal from that job involved him telling Clint Eastwood to shorten the running time of “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Eastwood calmly invited Geffen to do the cutting himself, adding, “I’ll be over at Paramount.”

Yet another round of reinvention was in order, so it was back to music for a while, but the early 1980s were unkind to his artists, and at one point Geffen sued Neil Young for making music that wouldn’t sell. It was a rash decision borne of Geffen’s dark, tantrum-prone side, mostly neglected by PBS’ affectionate treatment.

Geffen got his groove back eventually, though, setting up a competitive posse of talent-seekers who signed groups such as Aerosmith, Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Geffen’s team had Guns ‘N Roses under its wing for two years before “Appetite for Destruction” was released, and it took another wheedling phone call from Geffen to a friend at MTV to get them any airplay. “Appetite” went on to sell more than 30 million copies.

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg dish affectionately about founding movie studio DreamWorks SKG with Geffen, with no mention of the screaming fits at high-level meetings that have been detailed by Geffen’s other biographers. Blink and you’ll miss any mention of Geffen’s feuds with Hollywood bigwigs Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner and Sumner Redstone.

Geffen’s work with AIDS prevention leads into the last act of the documentary, which focuses on his philanthropy and political maneuverings, especially around the 2008 election.

Once an enthusiastic supporter of President Bill Clinton, Geffen turned vindictive in the wake of Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy, as well the pardon of financier Marc Rich. Geffen signed on to Team Obama, using the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd as his megaphone in a 2007 column in which he called Hillary Clinton an “incredibly polarizing figure” and railed against her as a viable presidential nominee.

After almost two hours of talking-head testimony about how Geffen is not to be crossed, the Clinton incident comes across as a refreshingly tangible example of the power he has accumulated. Unfortunately but understandably, not many of Geffen’s friends feel comfortable enough to elaborate on what his enemies can expect.

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