Inside Clive Davis' Doc: Industry Lessons and "Super Emotional" Whitney Houston Moments

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives'

"He wasn’t one of those labels execs who are out trying to party with the artists — he just cares," says Chris Perkel, director of 'The Soundtrack of Our Lives,' which opens the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Tribeca Film Festival begins Wednesday with a resounding salute to Clive Davis.

The world premiere of the music-oriented documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday will be followed by live performances by Aretha Franklin; Jennifer Hudson; Carly Simon; Earth, Wind & Fire; and more.

The doc's director, Chris Perkel, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about filming the legendary producer, learning from Davis' music industry tactics and carefully including footage of the late Whitney Houston.

Why a doc about Clive Davis?

Anybody who’s been alive over the last 50 years has felt his impact, but what’s most inspiring is how he lived his life, both professionally and personally, as someone who wasn’t bound by the identity politics and close-minded thinking that so many of us fall victim to. That receptiveness and engagement with the world enabled him to span so many genres and generations. Most people struggle with that, particularly as you get older, but he’s never done that.

How much access did you have?

He could not have been more accessible. He’s Clive Davis, so he certainly has a point of view on his own life and a high standard of quality and expectations in how the music is presented. And the movie has over 125 music cues, which is insane. He provided access to countless celebrities and musicians he’s touched over the years. We shot 58 interviews, and turned down dozens of others because we didn’t have time. The biggest challenge was trying to do justice to the breadth of the material without it becoming a survey film, without it becoming too thin.

What are you excited for audiences to see?

The Whitney Houston section is super emotional — that’s his deepest, most complicated and profound relationship with one of his artists. It’s spread over a few different areas in the film, and I think each of them work well. And it shows his unlikely rise to prominence and his tenacity, but also his sense of humor and incredible interpersonal skills. He’s got a finely tuned sense of how to deal with different personalities while maintaining a level of authenticity, and the reason why artists love and trust him is he’s very empathetic and makes them feel very secure, that they’re in professional hands. He wasn’t one of those label execs who are out trying to party with the artists. He just cares, and applies all his skills to ensure that the work is protected and positioned to make a cultural impact.

What’s something you’ve learned from Davis after wrapping this doc?

It was a privilege to get to know someone who is as accomplished as him in creating so much great work that has stood the test of time. I learned from his approach to navigating both the business world and the creative process simultaneously, and being able to have an eye toward both and not see them as mutually exclusive. It’s one of the things that I think any artist can learn from, regardless of how you choose to live your life or promote and create your art. He could manage artists who had very little preoccupations in commercial success, like The Grateful Dead or Patti Smith, and he could also work with pop artists who, by the very nature of what they’re trying to do, need to access large audiences. He could engage with both without making either feel compromised or belittled based on whatever their priorities were.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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