In “Inventing David Geffen,” singer Jackson Browne recalls the day he phoned his old pal and manager to offer congratulations on a particularly lucrative business deal.
“Who would have thought,” the rock star teased Geffen, “that it would take a billion dollars to make you happy?”
After watching this “American Masters” installment directed by Susan Lacy, who wouldn’t?
Fantastically ambitious even by the outsized standards of Hollywood, Geffen -- the inspiration for the uber-agent in Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” -- emerges here as a modern-day Jack Warner (whose mansion Geffen owns).
Geffen’s blessing and onscreen presence no doubt opened some security gates for Lacy. The roster of 50 interviewees reads like an Oscar-party door list: Elton John, Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Barry Diller, Rahm Emanuel, Steve Martin, Yoko Ono, Lorne Michaels, Frank Rich, Clive Davis, Cher.
And like any nervous party crasher, Lacy turns overly polite once inside. “Geffen,” as is typical with “American Masters,” is as much tribute as profile.
“He’s as accomplished and as visionary as any of the great media moguls of all time,” Tom Hanks says.
Says Browne (with a bit more flair): “He was the Medici of rock ‘n’ roll.”
All the same, Geffen’s story is irresistible.
Raised in hardscrabble Brooklyn (“You better learn to love to work,” his corset-stitching mother advised), Geffen pushed his way from the mailroom of the William Morris Agency to the heights of Hollywood.
By the early 1970s, Geffen and business partner Elliot Roberts were a cornerstone of the fledgling California soft-rock movement, plotting the careers of Browne, Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young and the Eagles.
“Inventing David Geffen” offers terrific footage of these rockers in their prime: Browne recording “Doctor My Eyes” in 1974; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Fillmore East; Mitchell performing “Free Man in Paris.”
Geffen conquered film as well: His first production was “Risky Business,” making a star of then-unknown Tom Cruise.
By the time he co-founded DreamWorks Studios with Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994, he was wealthy enough to donate his share of the profits to his charitable foundation. Openly gay, Geffen has been a major contributor to AIDS organizations (his relationships, with the exception of a high-profile 1970s romance with Cher, are not detailed in the film).
His early backing of Barack Obama marked a crucial shift in Hollywood’s political allegiances. He famously withdrew support from Hillary Clinton in 2005, saying she was too “polarizing” to defeat Republican John McCain.
“I think it was the first effective slam against Hillary Clinton,” Diller says.
With power like that, Geffen could surely withstand more scrutiny than he gets from Lacy. His notoriously fierce combativeness is duly (and enticingly) noted, but largely unexplored.
“Don’t get in a fight with David,” says David Crosby. “He doesn’t forget. He doesn’t give up. And he always wins.”
We should have heard from some losers.
“Inventing David Geffen” airs on PBS’s “American Masters” tonight at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2
Dolled up like a Halloween-parade Elizabeth Taylor, an affectless Lindsay Lohan isn’t even the worst thing in Lifetime’s abysmal “Liz & Dick.”
That would be Lloyd Kramer’s dreary direction. Or maybe a set design that renders the famously costly “Cleopatra” with cable-access production values.
Or maybe Christopher Monger’s script. “I won’t live without you!” Liz screams. “Go away, you harridan,” yells Richard Burton, his sing-songy Welsh growl effectively imitated by Grant Bowler.
The husky-voiced Lohan doesn’t bother with Taylor’s little-girl bray. Bad lighting could be blamed for what look like bruises on Lohan’s legs in a “Cleopatra” love scene, but this distracted, depressing performance is all hers.
“Liz & Dick” airs Sunday, Nov. 25, on Lifetime at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: *
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Patrick Cole on music, Laurie Muchnick on books.