‘Inventing David Geffen’: commerce that enables art

The PBS “American Masters” series usually focuses on a great artist, but the show went  in a slightly different direction with “Inventing David Geffen,” a profile of the unusually powerful record, film and stage producer, which is now available on DVD and download services.

Geffen would be the first one to say that he is not an artist in the traditional sense, but he has been a master at discovering and nurturing new talent for the past five decades (or, as he says at one point “I have no talent except for being able to enjoy and recognize it in others).

Susan Lacy’s film has elements of “Zelig” and “Six Degrees of Separation” as it shows how a behind-the-scenes guy made it possible for a vast array of artists to do their work — from Joni Mitchell to Tim Burton to Michael Bennett.

The man’s name is on everything from “Risky Business” to “Little Shop of Horrors” (both the stage and screen versions) and a huge number of the most popular and influential musical acts of the past 40 years.

In his interview footage, gay billionaire Geffen isn’t very forthcoming about his personal life — other than talk of an early romantic relationship with Cher — so Lacy rounded up an A-list of friends and business associates to tell the story of how an ambitious young New Yorker went from the mailroom at the William Morris Agency in 1964 to running (and selling) a series of major entertainment companies.

One of the biggest challenges facing many people in show business — on both the art and commerce sides — is trying to keep business and personal lives separate. Many of us are told early on in life never to go into business with a friend — if you want to keep the friendship — but separating the two in the entertainment world seems to be impossible.

Managers and producers like Geffen fall in love with talent and nurture it, but also make their income from the people they are spending most of their time and attention on. Artists in their age-old self-obsessed manner can be seductive when they find people who will devote themselves to the production and sales of their art.

Geffen learned this the hard way early in his career when he basically became a manager-with-one-client after falling under the spell of the singer-songwriter Laura Nyro (left). Geffen worked wonders in getting this eccentric talent exposure. When her own records had disappointing sales, he pushed hard to get other acts to record them and the result was a series of huge hits (Blood, Sweat & Tears scored big with “And When I Die” and The Fifth Dimension had multiple Nyro-penned hits including “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”).

When Geffen created his own record label and Nyro opted to stay with Columbia, the manager-producer nearly had a breakdown. We never hear Nyro’s side of this tangled story in the film because she died in 1997 in Danbury, Connecticut (she was only 49 and died of the disease — ovarian cancer — that claimed her mother at the same age).

The Geffen-Nyro partnership is just one part of this fascinating two hour film that delves into so many aspects of Hollywood and New York pop culture over the past half century. The film also shows us Geffen’s life in philanthropy and politics (a section is devoted to the mogul’s love/hate relationship with the Clintons and the monster clout he steered their way when he supported them).

It’s hard to imagine that there won’t be a compelling point of entry — from Bob Dylan to Tom Cruise — for nearly anyone who watches “Inventing David Geffen.” 

Joe Meyers