David Geffen, from mailroom to mogul

David Geffen, circa 1972, is the subject of an “American Masters” documentary. He founded Asylum Records with Elliot Roberts in 1970 and in 1972 sold it to Warner Communications.
David Geffen, circa 1972, is the subject of an “American Masters” documentary. He founded Asylum Records with Elliot Roberts in 1970 and in 1972 sold it to Warner Communications.COURTESY OF JOEL BERNSTEIN

‘I have no talent,” David Geffen said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, “except to be able to enjoy and recognize it in others.”

“Inventing David Geffen,” a new installment of PBS’s “American Masters” series, is an effort to show just exactly how influential Geffen’s ability to enjoy and recognize talent has been. To list just a few of the people who submitted to interviews for this documentary is to hint at the scope of his cultural imprint: Tom Hanks, Cher, Neil Young, Steven Spielberg, Rahm Emanuel, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Mike Nichols, David Crosby, Jackson Brown, Nora Ephron, Tim Burton, Steve Martin, Clive Davis, Jann Wenner, Robbie Robertson, and Yoko Ono. Now 69, Geffen has enabled the work of some of the most essential artists of the past five decades, as he worked his way up from the William Morris Agency mailroom to become a multi-billionaire entertainment mogul.

I can’t say “Inventing David Geffen” made me like Geffen a lot — and that’s a good thing. There’s a small touch of hagiography in the mix, as those he helped along the way praise him; but the documentary, which airs Tuesday at 8 p.m., also supports his reputation as a shrewd and sometimes ruthless wheeler-dealer. Right from the start of his career, when he lied on his application to the William Morris Agency and then covered it up, the guy whose mother called him “King David” was not easily deterred from his ambitions. At one point, he sued his own record label’s artist, Neil Young, when Young, then in his anti-commercial phase with albums such as “Trans,” wasn’t courting popular success. As a number of interviewees note, when Geffen got angry with you, watch out. In 2007, after his friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton had soured, he made unflattering comments about Hillary to the New York Times and lent all of his clout to Barack Obama.

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But then those same people point out that when Geffen likes you, he’ll move the earth for you. And the passion for and support of his artists that we see in the documentary is impressive, not least of all his creation of Asylum Records with Elliot Roberts in 1970. The idea behind the label was to give musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and the Eagles a safe haven from the more corporate labels, so they could pursue their musical goals unhindered by industry concerns.

His first love, professionally, was Laura Nyro, and he devoted his career to managing her and getting people to appreciate her songwriting brilliance. “I thought she was the greatest artist on the planet,” he says, and when she wouldn’t promote her music he successfully pushed her songs on other artists — Barbra Streisand, the 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat & Tears — to gain recognition for her. The Geffen-Nyro story doesn’t end well, after she signed with a label other than his — “I cried for days,” he says. But his nurturing of her remains inspiring. So, in a way, does his willingness to bring pot cross-country for David Crosby, which resulted in an airport drug bust. He wanted to give his acts whatever they needed to thrive creatively.

When Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Communications in 1972, and it was merged with Elektra Records, many of his artists were dismayed and disappointed with Geffen. Now their safe haven was owned by the kind of corporation they’d been avoiding. But Geffen was changing with the times, and tiring of giving without getting back. As Mitchell wrote in Geffen’s voice in her song “Free Man in Paris,” which is based on their trip with Robbie Robertson to France, Geffen was feeling overextended by his role as nurturer: “Everybody’s in it for their own gain / You can’t please them all / There’s always somebody calling you down.” In 1980 he founded the hugely successful Geffen Records, which eventually housed Nirvana, Aerosmith, and Elton John. Yoko Ono describes her and John Lennon’s decision to give “Double Fantasy” to Geffen, since he was willing to take her, and not just Lennon, seriously.

“Inventing David Geffen” provides a few highlights of Geffen’s personal life, most notably his unlikely 18-month relationship with Cher in the mid-1970s. He’d gotten out of serving in the military by admitting his homosexual tendencies, and, in her interview, Cher indicates that she knew he was gay when she met him. And yet they were together until she hooked up with Greg Allman, a breakup that landed Geffen in daily therapy for three years. “He was the most loving — I don’t care what you’ve heard of him — boyfriend in the world,” Cher says. The movie doesn’t mention any other of Geffen’s significant others, which could be an oversight or a comment on how much he has lived his work.

Midway through his career, he turned his attention toward Hollywood and the movies, where, after a failed stint at Warner Brothers, he hooked up with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg to create DreamWorks. There were also a few Broadway successes along the way, including “Dreamgirls,” whose producer-director-choreographer Michael Bennett became one of Geffen’s close friends. But the most engaging portion of “Inventing David Geffen” is the first hour, which focuses on his work with the classic folk-rock and confessional singer-songwriters of the 1970s. In those days, Geffen was “stoking the star-maker machinery,” as Mitchell put it, in order to save his favorite artists from getting their own hands dirty.

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