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David Geffen: 'Invented' and Dazzling on PBS

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"The Medici of rock 'n' roll!"

Because I was taking a few notes in the dark at the Paris Theater -- watching Inventing David Geffen -- I don't know exactly which of the many geniuses (or Genii) speaking onscreen about David Geffen, said this. But at the party after in the elegant La Grenouille restaurant, Mike Nichols rose and repeated it as one of his own favorite quotes of the night. That part of the film simply covered the "how potent cheap music" part of Geffen's life. It goes on to show us the premium truth-telling executive of show business. Hollywood's very first business billionaire. And how he became a figment of his own imagination.

This two-hour film on the life of Geffen will be shown on PBS (Channel 13) in the "American Masters" series on November 20th. And, forever after, it will become part of the first-rate lexicon of director-producer Susan Lacy's oeuvre. (She has already given two decades to PBS and covered Leonard Bernstein, Martha Graham, Julia Child, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Charlie Chaplin, Norman Mailer, Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, George Balanchine, Jasper Johns, and John Lennon. I'm not even beginning to name them all.)

So, David Geffen, a slim little kid who escaped Brooklyn to fulfill his dream in Hollywood, becomes a maestro of the rock generation after starting as an agent. "What does an agent do?" he asked, at first.

"Nothing," came the answer. So he ended up at William Morris, learning to read upside down the letters on the desks of his betters. He discovered and adored singer-songwriter Laura Nero and this launched his master-minding of careers. He was always "for" the artist against the company. And that paid off. Except in a few instances when it didn't "pay off" emotionally and Geffen became super successfully controversial and feared.

I won't kill the suspense by describing everything Geffen did on his ladder to super success; suffice to say it features Crosby, Stills & Nash... the Eagles... his 18-month love affair with Cher... the Guns N' Roses saga... through the creation of Asylum and Electra Records on to his experiences at Warner Bros, where he ended up buying the mansion that the late Jack Warner had built. (He hadn't read about the moguls of Hollywood for nothing!)

The film more or less treads softly on the disrupted friend and partnership between Geffen and Steve Ross, but as we know, in the end the young executive Geffen overcame the free-wheeling Ross.

This documentary proves that two-hours is hardly long enough to cover the exploits of Geffen who eventually surprised the world by becoming the creator, with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, of a new studio named Dreamworks.

What's wonderful is that today Geffen is still young, fresh-looking, confident, attractive and yet
ever the same -- a hard bargainer, smarter than everyone else, realistic and dreamlike in combo, exerting his unending care for friends and his implacable will against his foes. (The Clintons are given a little of this up and down treatment in the documentary but I am betting when push comes to shove in 2016, he'll be back in their corner. On the other hand, maybe not -- maybe he'll run for president himself!)

I have omitted here many musicians we have served up, playing and talking. (I have included Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, the Youngbloods, Jackson Brown, Joni Mitchell.) Add to this, Geffen's "discovery" of Tom Cruise and the hit of hits movie Risky Business. His devotion to theater, which grew through his admiring the late Michael Bennett... the Broadway-movie Dreamgirls experience... and ongoing -- Geffen's coming out as gay, and his devotion plus millions to the AIDS cause.

If perhaps you think we observers on the fringe of this 1 percent entertainment world and observers shouldn't be going to parties like the one held after at La Grenouille -- well, the rich, social and effective all have to live too. This room full of what hasn't curdled in the cream de la cream, has given and established enormous charities. Show business produces multi-millionaires who are much more generous than any other group. (I'll just cite two who were there, Geffen and Marlo Thomas.)

I won't insult you by saying "everybody who was anybody was there," but partymaker Peggy Siegal produced a bonanza of VIP names with the help of Charles Masson who owns La Grenouille, the absolute last of the best of the inheritance handed down by Henri Soule, the man who made French food so American... So everyone ate great things and sat with someone fascinating -- I, with the down-to-earth Susan Lacy and her husband, landscape architect Mark Razum.

If I were PBS's genial and effective head Neal Shapiro, I'd be beginning to worry a tiny bit. I predict the talented Ms. Lacy might escape the public TV rat race for a more conventional, high profile, money-making type of film. I think she is ready for a feature movie employing unusual talents. (Her films look absolutely marvelous!) She'd be ready for the trials, too, of a commercial feature using actors and artists because that's what she is doing anyway -- showing us the great in all their make-believe madness.

She didn't indicate any of this to me. I am just using my 47 percent intuition. I liked my own encounter with the auspicious subject, David Geffen. I said to him: "David, I have known you for many years. I didn't know you were so important!" He laughed and answered: "Oh, yes, you did!"