In Barry Avrich’s new documentary, David Foster: Off the Record, the eighties pop-music wunderkind and songwriter to the stars talks about his work on Barbra Streisand’s Somewhere, from 1985. “In all modesty,” says Foster, a man not known for that, “I killed it.”
He’s not wrong. The cocky Victoria native killed it often – and if you don’t believe him, perhaps you could ask the 16 Grammys sitting on his grand piano. Or you could do what Avrich did: speak to some of the artists who worked with Foster.
“He’s everything,” says Lionel Richie, one of the many on-screen interviewees who gush over Foster in the documentary, which makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9. “He is the artist, he is the showman, he has that sound of a hit record.”
“There’s him and Quincy Jones," adds songwriter Diane Warren.
And from crooner Michael Bublé: “People who are musical understand the genius of David Foster."
The truth is, one doesn’t have to be a Bach, a Beethoven or a Beatle to appreciate the talent of the composer-producer once labelled the “master of bombastic pop kitsch” by Rolling Stone. Foster himself, speaking to The Globe and Mail in 2008, described his formula as obvious. “It’s the big key change, the big stop, the heart-stopping moment, the moment where the crowd is going to burst into applause when watching it live,” said the man who produced Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard soundtrack cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You – the song choice was Kevin Costner’s idea, by the way – and who co-wrote Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone and Chicago’s You’re the Inspiration.
But to make a compelling documentary about the 69-year-old there would need to be more than ovation and discography. Avrich, a Montrealer, is known for making films about shady showbiz kingpins and controversial media figures: Bob Guccione, Garth Drabinsky, Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood titan Lew Wasserman. Would Foster, talented and successful as he is, make for an intriguing subject?
“I didn’t want to make a laudatory film, though I know there will be people who say that’s what it is,” Avrich says over the phone. “There had to be a little bit more, in terms of the complexity of David."
Avrich admits the film wasn’t his idea. The project was pitched to him three years ago by Canada’s Walk of Fame chief executive officer Jeffrey Latimer and Bell Media president Randy Lennox. Avrich was considering a couple of other projects, including a documentary about Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier and convicted sex offender. But the more he learned about Epstein, the less interest he had in making the film. “The subject matter became more and more disgusting,” he says. “There was a real appetite for the film, but I decided to pass on it.”
Does he have second thoughts, given Epstein’s recent jail-cell suicide and the conspiracy theories surrounding his case? “It’s a hell of a story,” Avrich says. “But I don’t regret abandoning it. I’ll leave it to other people to explore.”
He was also approached to direct a documentary about Clive Davis, the legendary music executive and producer. "But Ridley Scott was executive producer, so I thought, ‘If you have Ridley Scott, you don’t need me.’ ”
Which left Avrich with Foster. Initially, the level of trust between them “wasn’t there,” according to the filmmaker. “It was a process relationship at first, but then I interviewed him at Capital Records. He was impressed. I had his life down, and we pushed.”
He got Foster, who has now turned his attention to Broadway, to speak about his family. “He had five wives, five sisters and five daughters," Avrich says. “I knew there had to be stuff there, and we had to deal with it.”
About Wasserman, Avrich once said the mogul had the entire equation of the film business in his head. After spending two years with Foster, Avrich believes the brash perfectionist is the music world’s equivalent. “David is cold, tough and brilliant – and he knows how to make hits."
And his notorious cockiness? “In the business he’s in, you wear that ego like armour,” Avrich says. “You suit up and go into battle and say that you’re the best and you have to deliver. And David did.”
David Foster: Off the Record screens at TIFF Sept. 9, 5 p.m., Elgin, and Sept. 14, 9:15 a.m., Scotiabank (tiff.net)
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