NEW YORK — Robert De Niro, a founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, scored one of the opening night's biggest laughs. In introducing Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Jennifer Hudson, Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, Kenny G., and Earth, Wind & Fire, he noted that these music stars were "all fresh from not performing at the inauguration."
The remarks came full circle, as he was standing onstage at the Radio City Music Hall, the venue where the Rockettes often kick and some, like Phoebe Pearl, rebelled by refusing to perform at Donald Trump's inauguration. As a reminder, the Republican attracted almost no big-name talent to his swearing-in ceremony, save Jackie Evancho, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Toby Keith, and 3 Doors Down. The message was clear: The music industry refused to lend its endorsement or its entertainers in support of the politician or his policies.
The event stood in stark contrast to Tribeca, which opened with the documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. There, the stars aligned to celebrate Davis, a bisexual music mogul who helped launch and revive many of the industry's biggest names. The documentary recounted a who's who of the the music industry — Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, Steven Tyler, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen all appear in present or archival footage in praise of Davis. As Sean Combs remarked, Davis "made the soundtrack for our lives."
In following the life of Davis — who became president of Columbia Records in 1967 and is presently the chief creative officer at Sony Music Entertainment — the documentary is also a sweeping chronicle of modern music history as well as the social movements that are tied to them. This isn't just a cultural revolution, "this is a music revolution," Davis remarked about the Summer of Love, remembering when he first "felt my spine tingle" from watching Joplin in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.
The documentary also addressed his bisexuality. Davis first came out in his biography, The Soundtrack of My Life, on which the documentary is based. "I opened myself up to the possibility that I could have a relationship with a man as well as the two that I had with a woman," said Davis, who had two "failed" marriages with women, in archival footage of a 2013 interview with Katie Couric.
In the documentary, Davis added, "You don't have to be one thing or another." Friends pointed out that his coming-out, like his music, proved Davis had his finger on the "zeitgeist," and that "he wasn't particularly surprised by all the attention he got."
Wednesday night was particularly resonant for the issue of coming out, as Manilow, who recently discussed his homosexuality for the first time, was one of the performers in the star-studded concert following the documentary. Beforehand, the film showed how Davis helped mentor Manilow and create hits like "I Write the Songs," which he performed to the jubilant crowd.
Where stars shine their light is a political act. However, most of the political commentary from the Wednesday event did not come from the performers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the night's first speaker, noted that the festival was founded in the wake of a terrorist attack, 9/11, as a means of revitalizing the city's downtown neighborhood.
"It reflects what New York is all about in its soul and in its character," he said of the arts celebration. "And it's so important today, at a time when forces would seek to close down this country, to isolate, to homogenize, to demonize differences. New York stands as the home to diversity, acceptance, and individuality."
Whoopi Goldberg, a host of the festivities who introduced each musical act, pledged not to be too politcal. But she did stress one issue. "No matter who you voted for, fight for the arts in schools!" Goldberg declared to applause. Later, she also recounted a story about a trilingual great-grandchild, who to her was symbolic of America's intersectional future.
This story was inspired by Carly Simon, who, in a memorable and unusual move, surprised the crowd by bringing out a diverse children's choir to sing several rounds of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Afterward, Simon explained the spider was a symbol of persistance. She spoke of the Sisyphean task of pushing a stone upward, despite all odds, until the sun, finally, comes out.