'Inventing David Geffen' Documentary Premieres at Toronto Film Festival
'Inventing David Geffen' Documentary Premieres at Toronto Film Festival

A lively account of one of the most influential careers in modern showbiz, Susan Lacy's "Inventing David Geffen" works within a familiar format to sing the praises of a man who never did. An upcoming airing on PBS's American Masters series (Nov. 20) will please home auds; on home vid, the story should inspire would-be moguls for years.

"I'm completely without gift," David Geffen recalls telling a casting agent who asked, decades ago, about the nature of his gifts. "You should become an agent," she replied.

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Instead of waiting around for the rim-shot punctuating that zinger, Geffen not only lied his way into a William Morris Agency gig but spent months sorting mail to intercept the proof he was lying: One quick alteration to the damning letter from UCLA, and his career was on track.

Lacy draws an easy-to-follow line whose twisting trajectory looked crazy at the time: how being awestruck by songwriter Laura Nyro's talent led the up-and-coming agent to quit WMA and become her manager; how that led quickly to a partnership (with Elliot Roberts) handling acts including Crosby, Stills and Nash; how his failed attempt to get Jackson Browne a record deal led him to co-found the legendary Asylum label.

We get glimpses of the famously aggressive, and inspired, dealmaking that enabled Geffen's quick rise. Audiotape of a call with Columbia Records head Clive Davis (accompanied by appealing animation) catches him getting the best of a music industry giant while proposing a Byrds reunion; stories about how his entrepreneurial mother used to haggle with Bloomingdale's clerks suggest this chutzpah was in his blood.

After a run in which his relationship to talent was that of a parent going to bat for his pampered kid's every whim (he arranged for the lyrics sleeve on a Nyro LP to be printed in lilac-scented ink), Geffen thought of himself in arranging the suprise sale of Asylum to Warner. A few years later, a false diagnosis of bladder cancer forced him to rethink his priorities further. Looking back on these turning points in contemporary interview footage, Geffen is candid and self-analytical, showing no evidence of the prickliness that reportedly helped him win every argument that mattered.

In fact, although many interviewees here (from Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Davis) make note of Geffen's temper -- "Does he sometimes go too far? Yeah, he does," one says -- we never hear examples. Surely, the cutting-room floor is piled high with colorful anecdotes of bad behavior serving a good idea, and the doc would be richer for them. But Lacy has too many more achievements to explore -- little milestones like Geffen Records, "Risky Business," "Cats," and a remarkable philanthropic legacy -- to get hung up on talking to anyone who harbors hurt feelings, or witnessed a David Geffen project that didn't somehow, in the end, turn to gold.

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