Staff Pick: “Inventing David Geffen” (2012)

Screenshot from Inventing David Geffen on PBS

David Geffen is one of the most influential figures in the music and movie industries over the past 50+ years. In 2012, PBS released “Inventing David Geffen,” a documentary about his life and career, as part of the American Masters series. The documentary spans his entire career and features interviews with Geffen and a series of musicians and other influential people from the entertainment business.

Geffen is a very ambitious man. And he’s ruthless. Those qualities served him well as he built his fortune, first in the music business and then in Hollywood. He certainly rubbed many people the wrong way throughout his life and career, but he became a billionaire who could leverage his influence in business, philanthropy and politics.

Geffen started his career by lying his way into the William Morris mailroom, claiming he had graduated from UCLA. When another employee revealed he was being fired for lying on his resume, Geffen spent the next six months going in early to intercept the inevitable UCLA letter, and then he doctored it to support his lie about graduating. This set the tone for his career. He would do what it took to succeed.

He became an talent agent, working tirelessly to find new artists. After discovering Laura Nyro, he helped build her career by starting a music publishing company for her songs, which he sold for $4 million after three of her songs recorded by other artists reached the top ten. It was the first of many times when Geffen would sense opportunity and take advantage of a hot market. He knew when to sell.

Geffen co-founded Asylum Records as a new record label in 1971 with Elliot Roberts. This rare interview is featured in the documentary and we see Geffen explaining his philosophy behind Asylum Records. They were focused on the music and nurturing artists. The passion was real, and that’s what enabled him to build a successful label. Geffen decided to start the label at the suggestion of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun when Geffen couldn’t get another label to take Jackson Browne. The label also would feature Crosby, Stills and Nash.

One of the bands he helped nurture at Asylum was the Eagles. He helped assemble the band and took over every aspect of their careers. Glenn Frey recalls in one interview how Geffen explained to him that he’d be rich, but that Geffen would be richer, and that’s how things would turn out. Geffen made brilliant decisions for the band, such as releasing their Greatest Hits album when they were reaching the height of their popularity. It ended up being the highest selling album of all time. When Geffen decided to sell Asylum, Frey and Don Henley explained that they were blindsided by that decision, though they came to understand it years later.

Geffen’s short love affair with Cher was a big surprise. I hadn’t known about that, and even Geffen explains how surprising that was in light of the fact that he was gay. But the relationship worked, even if only for a short while. He also had a cancer scare in the late 1970s that resulted from a misdiagnosis. It put him through hell, but he came out of it more comfortable with himself.

In 1980 he founded another music label with Geffen Records. He took a different approach here, signing some huge stars. This led him to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, where he was able to get their attention by paying attention to Yoko. Sadly he lived through the tragic murder of Lennon and helped Yoko through the ordeal.

The evolution of Geffen Records was interesting. In the early 80s they blew too much money signing big stars. The label was struggling. At one point Geffen sued Neil Young for putting out bombs that weren’t consistent with his previous commercial success. Geffen eventually dropped the suit, but Young hasn’t forgotten about it even if they remain friends. As the decade progress, Geffen realized he needed to build out his A&R team and rely less on his own tastes. This led to a string of successes. The story behind how the label broke Guns & Roses.

After a series of deals, Geffen eventually sold the label and ended up a billionaire. But that just starts another chapter, with DreamWorks and the movie business and then his impact on philanthropy and then politics.

David Geffen has lived a remarkable life, and he’s had a huge impact on the music business, along with so many other things. This documentary is worth a watch . . .