Susan Lacy's "Inventing David Geffen," which premieres Tuesday as part of the PBS series "American Masters," takes a long look at the agent-manager-record-mogul-movie-mogul (and Broadway producer and billionaire philanthropist). In Los Angeles, he is also a sort of proper noun: "The Geffen," attached here to a playhouse, there to an art museum.
As a businessman, Geffen would seem to fall outside the range of the series' usual creative-types subjects. Geffen himself has said, "I have no talent except for being able to enjoy and recognize it in others."
But in the words of Neil Young, whom Geffen once co-managed — and sued, when Young was recording for Geffen Records in the 1980s, for recording music "uncharacteristic" of himself — Geffen was "a performance artist. The art of the deal was his stage."
Though, as pure journalism, the film is mitigated by the testimonial air common to "Masters" films — the work always justifies the life — it is, if you pay attention, an honest enough trip through 50 years of pop culture.
The musical aspects of Geffen's life and career tend to provide more interesting episodes (and better images) than his time in the movies — you have heard of a little thing called DreamWorks, perhaps — but in either case we are to understand him as a man of almost unerring, killer instincts.
It goes without saying that he is complicated. A dyslexic gay Jewish Brooklyn boy who lied his way into the mail room at the William Morris Agency, he entered the music business managing Laura Nyro — a cause with him — and made his first millions from the sale of her publishing catalog.
Joni Mitchell was his roommate for a while; she wrote "Free Man in Paris" about him. ("I deal in dreamers/And telephone screamers" exactly captures his work life.) Most unexpectedly, he was Cher's serious boyfriend for 18 months: "the most loving — I don't care what you've heard about him — boyfriend in the world," says Cher.
Lacy duly offers some negative assessments of Geffen's style; he was often that screamer on the telephone. David Crosby calls him "a shark of our own" — he brokered the inter-label artist swap that made Crosby, Stills & Nash possible — but he also dearly loved the music and the musicians.
The whole point of Asylum Records, synonymous with the country-rock sound of Southern California in the early 1970s, was to give artists a refuge from the music business. But along with the family atmosphere came ill-defined borders and conflicts of interest, and doubly hurt feelings when things went wrong.
The range of Geffen's life and reach is indicated by Lacy's interview subjects, including Tom Hanks, Jackson Browne, Warren Beatty, Lorne Michaels, Frank Rich, Jann Wenner, Clive Davis, Arianna Huffington, Rahm Emanuel, Barry Diller, Calvin Klein, Mike Nichols and the never-heard-from Mo Ostin, former chairman of Warner Bros. Records. Like Geffen, they are all people who can get their calls returned.
'American Masters: David Geffen'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)