David Geffen would have to be invented if he didn't already exist. First aired on PBS (American Masters), then on Netflix, this view of Geffen, agent, record label owner, and movie producer, is mostly from his own words, with some impressive special guests.
Geffen was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Brooklyn. Not a good student, he dreamed of going to California and working in the movies. The day he graduated high school, he drove out to California, getting parts as an extra in a few films. Coming back home to NYC, he got a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. He then applied for a talent agency job. Told he needed a college degree, David, full of chutzpah, told everyone he had graduated from UCLA. Still in the mailroom, he waited for the denial letter from UCLA to arrive and changed it to show he had graduated. That’s how he got his first proper industry job.
Back in California with fellow mailroom worker Eliot Roberts, the duo picked up agency clients such as Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Geffen was very enthusiastic about his clients’ music and very hands-on with his clients. All the artists in the singer-songwriter genre in L.A. gathered at his office, playing music and smoking weed. When Geffen found Jackson Browne, a sensitive songwriter with movie-star good looks, other record execs told him he’d have to start his own label, so Asylum Records was born. They quickly signed The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Linda Ronstadt.
The doc makes a distinction between New York musicians, having to claw for record deals and work with shifty agents, and the California model, where agents found the musical artists and nurtured them, even allowing some records to fail in terms of sales to help the artists grow. Clips from artists, such as Glenn Frey from the Eagles, sing David’s praises. Eliot, his label and management partner, became a ‘super’ agent with Joni. The Eagles, and Neil Young on his roster.
In 1980, Geffen started Geffen Records (under Warner Brothers) and his first signing was...
Donna Summer. This was the disco queen in her last throes, as the pop music scene entered the ‘new wave’ period. Still. Geffen Records went off like a rocket, signing the right acts at the right time, including Whitesnake, Lennon and Ono, Aerosmith, Guns & Roses, Elton John, XTC, and a little band from Washington State called Nirvana. Geffen got into it with Neil Young, who released Trans, Re-Act-or, and a rockabilly record, Geffen/Geffen Records sued Young for not making “Neil Young music.” Neil fought back hard, making Geffen look like a clown.
By 1990 Geffen Records was sold for well over a billion dollars. Having already bought Jack Warner’s mansion in Los Angeles, Geffen decided to become a movie mogul. The Geffen Film Company released Risky Business (with Tom Cruise) in 1983 and Beetlejuice in 1988. They produced Broadway adaptations of Cats and Dreamgirls. Proceeds from these hits allowed him to start Dreamworks Studios with Stephen Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg. David had come to be the movie mogul he dreamed of as a boy.
In interviews, Geffen seems genuinely warm and convivial. He isn’t afraid to talk about his 10 year relationship with Cher, although he is and always been a gay man. He carefully tells the story of how he forged the William Morris Letter. He’s just a schlub from Brooklyn that took the off-ramp to fame that is now worth $10.1 billion Dollars. He has a modern art collection bigger than a museum's and a couple of yachts. All of this does not seem to impress him. He gave $400 million to UCLA for a new medical school, perhaps finally settling up with his fake alma mater.
David Geffen, while inventing himself, did not seem to forget about friends and loyalty. He is much loved in the entertainment industry and not out for blood or treasure.