Aretha Franklin was feeling unexpectedly apologetic.
"I'm fighting an upper respiratory viral infection and shortness of breath, so forgive me if I miss a few notes," the soul diva told a packed house at Radio City Music Hall Wednesday. "But I wasn't going to miss this evening."
The occasion was the opening of the 16th Tribeca Film Festival, which this year was celebrating the celebrated record executive Clive Davis. Davis turned 85 this month, a feat that both highlights his long history in the music business and his continued influence in it.
The night featured the premiere of the documentary "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives," directed by Chris Perkel and slated for release by Apple Music. It was also an excuse for many of Davis' collaborators and confidantes to gather and jam: Franklin, Barry Manilow, Earth, Wind & Fire, Carly Simon, Jennifer Hudson, Dionne Warwick.
It was, as Tribeca co-founfer Robert De Niro said before the screening, a grouping of artists "fresh off not performing at the inauguration."
As the musicians and movie were there to remind, Davis was a man who found and cultivated artists like Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana and Janis Joplin, as well as those, such as Warwick, whom he revived mid-career.
First, though, came the film. "Soundtrack" rarely dips below hagiography. We're told by a former colleague that Davis could be driven by anxiety in meetings, and the producer David Foster gets in a shot about his obstinacy on the music's nitty gritty. But for the most part, the movie offers a warm and rosy picture of the longtime head of Columbia and Arista records, who is portrayed as a devoted music fan, a dedicated family man, a savvy business person and a trusted guardian angel for artists.
We particularly know the last part because it's said early and often in the movie by many musicians — Sean Combs, Springsteen, Patti Smith, the family of Whitney Houston. Even Kenny G, master of mom jazz himself, turns up to extol the “Man With the Golden Ears," the sobriquet Davis’ talent-spotting prowess has earned him. The film rarely gets into how Davis does it, let alone the times his ears were made of a less precious metal.
Still, "Soundtrack" is an endearing portrait of a man who came from humble working-class roots, not to mention a whirlwind tour through 50 years of musical history. Even when it turns dark, like when he couldn't stop Whitney Houston, whom he discovered, from slipping into the abyss, it does so by foregrounding his paternal tendencies and good intentions.
And the night was really about feting more than questioning anyway. The screening ended and a curtain went up to reveal Manilow at his piano, backed by a large band, as he played hits like "Copacabana" and "Looks Like We Made It." Hudson followed, letting loose a roof-shaking cover of “Hallelujah" and a Whitney Houston medley that had the audience out of their seats and her dancing up the aisle to share a moment with Davis.
"Any time we want to reminisce on our Clive or his legacy, we know Whitney Houston is a part of it," Hudson said. "So I want to take this time to remember her in the sweetest way."
Simon took the stage to play "Coming Around Again," the 1986 ballad from "Heartburn" that resuscitated her career, interspersing it with her version on "Itsy Bitsy Spider" that she sang with the help of some child backup singers. "Happiness is a man called Clive," she said, before her short set.
The remaining members of Earth, Wind & Fire turned up, backed by Kenny G and offering hits like "September." Warwick obliged with "That's What Friends Are For," the 1980s charity anthem of which she was one-quarter part.
And then, of course, came Franklin, locks and dress flowing, songs reaching melismatic heights as she performed elaborate versions of "Natural Woman" and "Freeway of Love.
"Clive is not only the chieftain who sits in an executive office and takes care of all the business, but he takes care of the artists as well," she said. Davis, in the audience, was barely seen on the big screen and never heard from, a fitting way to honor a man who has hovered over the industry while allowing his artists to be front-and-center in it.