PBS review: 'Inventing Geffen' profiles media mogul David Geffen

Published: Monday, Nov. 19 2012 4:45 p.m. MST

David Geffen, circa 1972, reveals himself for the first time on "David Geffen: American Masters."

Courtesy of Joel Bernstein

Neil Simon and Paul Simon. Charlie Chaplin and Julia Child. Edgar Allan Poe and Cole Porter. Norman Mailer and Bob Marley. Albert Einstein and Duke Ellington. Helen Hayes and Ernest Hemmingway.

The subjects profiled by PBS’ American Masters series are well-known luminaries. With “Inventing David Geffen,” on KUED at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20, another name is added to the list.

You ask, who is David Geffen?

His is one of the names you may know but can’t place.

Geffen is the G in SKG DreamWorks, that triumvirate of film royalty that includes Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. He’s also the man who propelled the careers of the Eagles, John Lennon, Guns N’ Roses and that rising star (cough, cough) Tom Cruise. And on Broadway he produced “Dreamgirls,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Cats.”

Let’s just call him a media mogul who has amassed a personal fortune of $5.5 billion and move on.

“Inventing David Geffen” is a blueprint on how to launch a career as an entertainment manager. No worries if you were a self-proclaimed "dummy" in your Brooklyn elementary school. Start by landing a job in the mail room of talent agency William Morris — by padding your resume with a degree from UCLA. Add in fearlessness, tenacity and chutzpah. Do that and — natural talent or not — you too can achieve success.

In an archival clip, Geffen tells a large audience gathered to celebrate him, “I have no talent…”

What makes the documentary so fascinating is Geffen’s wit, self-awareness and unflinching candor. And that frank openness includes his failures. Telling Clint Eastwood how to re-edit a movie. Overpaying Elton John in advances. Suing Neil Young when his albums underperformed.

Yet John and Young are among those weighing in with the same degree of bluntness and rich insight on how Geffen shaped popular culture for four decades. This list includes A-listers like Cher, Tom Hanks, Yoko Ono, Calvin Klein, Steve Martin and dozens of others. In total, there are 50 new interviews with his friends, colleagues and clients.

While Geffen is widely considered the man Carly Simon wrote about in “You’re So Vain” (he’s not), Joni Mitchell’s “I Was a Free Man in Paris” is about him. And we learn this directly from the singer-songwriter.

But the documentary is also a bit of a whitewash. Little is revealed of his personal life, including his long-time relationship with a young man 41 years his junior.

“Inventing David Geffen” is a fawning tribute and continues the complicated relationship the country has with celebrities who are too often lionized.

Yet Geffen’s is a unique voice.

“I’ve always thought that each person invented himself,” he says. “And some people have a greater ability to imagine than others.”

Content advisory: coarse language and brief discussion of sexuality.

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