A Life Well-Lived: David Foster Documentary Finds Him Front and Center

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David Foster: Off the Record
4.5 out of 5 Stars

They say nothing becomes a legend the most as the legends themselves. Well, maybe that saying hasn’t quite entered the popular lexicon just yet, but after viewing the sprawling documentary, David Foster: Off the Record, which debuts today on Netflix, one might be tempted to share that thought regardless. Directed by Barry Avrich, the film allows the multi-award winning producer and songwriter ample opportunity to open up about his life and career, foregoing any unneeded modesty in the process.

Then again, given the fact that Foster’s sat behind the boards on literally hundreds of best-selling albums, written any number of hits and produced a veritable who’s who of the most popular artists of the past 50 years — Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson, Kenny Loggins, Olivia Newton-John, Kenny Rogers, Donna Summer, Chicago, Josh Groban, Toni Braxton, Alice Cooper, and Natalie Cole, among them — his pride is well justified. Likewise, his list of awards and accolades — some 16 Grammy Awards (including three for Producer of the Year), an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Famed, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a citation as an Officer of the Order of Canada, et. al. — clearly attest to his many talents.

Even so, in the film, Foster laments the fact that he hasn’t won a Tony, but he’s optimistic that eventually he will. That said, there’s no mention of the citation he was once awarded by Rolling Stone, that of “master of … bombastic pop kitsch.”

Given his accomplishments, Foster can certainly afford to take a few knocks, but on the whole, the documentary comes across as nothing less than a love letter to one of the most prolific careers the music business has ever produced. While the majority of it, naturally enough, provides plenty of face time to the subject himself, there’s also ample opportunity accorded such megastars as Streisand, Groban, Celine Dion, Bill Clinton, Mariah Carey, Quincy Jones, and Michael Bublé to sing his praises as well. Even a skeptic might find him or herself succumbing to nothing less than abject admiration.

“Well the answer to this question is not probably as interesting as anyone would imagine or hope,” Foster replies when asked why the documentary was originally released just last year. “Quite simply put, I did this doc now because someone ‘asked’ me if I would be interested. Bell media, Jeffrey Latimer and director Barry Avrich simply posed the possibility to me and I said yes.”

Given the abundance of archival video, home movies and still photos included in what can only be called an epoch of sorts, the production is certainly well done. Indeed, it goes back to the beginning as Foster credits his father with providing him with his earliest inspiration. He then cites the fact that at the age of five he was already making music himself. He says his family never had much money, but he notes that after recognizing his talent, his parents spent their life savings in order to buy him his first piano.

Nevertheless, the film also finds him confessing that he had a troubled relationship with his father after his dad became ill. “I had a great childhood, and the fact that I only visited my father once in the eleven days that he was in the hospital before he died, to this day remains a total mystery to me” he concedes in retrospect. “Was I afraid? Was I working ? Did I not have means to get there?  I certainly didn’t think that he would leave us so suddenly. He was recovering nicely. So it’s a major glitch in my life that I may never figure out.”

Like most kids his age, Foster credits the Beatles with making the most indelible impact on his life, and ultimately his decision to make music his career. “The Beatles literally changed my life,” he reflects. “I decided that that was what I wanted to do.”

It wasn’t long before he could claim mastery of a veritable instrumental arsenal and the ability to write for orchestra, play in a rock band and beipart of Chuck Berry’s back-up ensemble. Chuck, it seems, wasn’t the best taskmaster.

He was an “asshole,” Foster declares.

Eventually, Foster settled on mostly working behind the boards, and clearly it was a choice he never came to regret. “I am very used to the idea that I am basically a ‘behind the scenes’ guy, and that my job is to serve the artists to the best of my ability,” he says in retrospect. “I actually started performing because I wanted to see what it felt like for the artists that would leave my studio and go out and perform what we had created together. I think any songwriter reading this can relate to what I am talking about.”

Naturally then, the idea of taking center stage via the documentary brought him considerable satisfaction. “I was definitely not disappointed at the feeling of a whole room singing a song I wrote or produced,” he reckons. “I liked the idea of a comprehensive look at my life through the lens of someone else. I stayed out of the way because I didn’t think it would be fair to have my ‘fingerprints’ all over the doc. Of course there were things that I wished could have been taken out, but I played by the rules.”

Nevertheless, the film allowed Foster to share the memories that have long been entrenched within him. That, he says, was most satisfying aspect of the entire effort. “All 7 or 8 billion people on this planet have this incredible thing called our mind,” he muses. “We get to be the director, writer, producer and lead actor in our own life—24/7—for life! These stories that I told while in the ‘hot seat’ are completely ingrained in my head. I know every detail of every event — they just never leave my brain. Now there may be a moment that the director reminded me of and that I forgot, but usually that was because I didn’t think it was important enough to remember.”

It was, he said, a most enjoyable experience.

“It was really satisfying to have such a comprehensive look at my own life that will be ‘on the record’ for a long time. and to have someone like Barry with his expertise sort through all of it and make sense of it all” Foster reflects. “Of course you think about your grandchildren, great grandchildren etcetera and how my life — the good and the bad — will be documented forever for them if they are ever interested.”

In addition to the documentary, Foster can claim another new project as well, an album of piano instrumentals titled Eleven Words that was released this past April. Ironically, though the album was originally recorded last summer, the songs themselves share sentiments that would come to define the pandemic period that the world has experienced since earlier this year. It is, Foster says, an album that has special meaning to him.

“Every morning I woke up, went to the piano, pushed record and hoped that something good would fall out of me,” he recalls. “I did this for a month, and at the end of it, I had the eleven songs I wanted, co written by the words I identified ahead of time to be used as titles—‘wonderment’, ‘nobility’, ‘love’, ‘elegant’, ‘victorious’, etcetera. I had no way of knowing, of course, that months down the road, these words and this music would take on a new meaning. So I’m proud of it, and the feedback I’ve gotten has really been gratifying. It was the purest I have been musically in a very long time. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. It’s just the truth.”

Even now, Foster has several other projects on his proverbial plate, although given the fact that most plans are on hold, he’s uncertain when he’ll be able to see them through to fruition. “Before March, I was working on three musicals,” he says. “They are all in various stages—some further along than others—but all of them hold great promise for me and the incredible teams that have been assembled around us. It’s really exciting and it absolutely feels like the right next step for me. The work is hard and the work is long. The rejection is at a max because unlike making records, its a team effort and the composer is definitely not in charge. You can imagine how much I like that! But I’m adjusting and enjoying the experience.”

Which brought him to his bucket list, an unlikely idea for a man who, as the film points out, seemingly accomplished everything he set out to do.

“I think the bucket list is that somehow through hard work and some luck that I will make a meaningful contribution to Broadway. I believe I still have the ability to move an audience with my music. I guess we will find out.”

Ultimately, it’s curious that for all his accomplishments, his response seems to belie the confidence he conveys both on the record and in Off the Record as well.

“I always operate under the notion that my last success will be my last success-—no more coming,” he admits. “That is the way I have operated since I started in my teens. Is that a key to success ? Is that what drives me? Is that even healthy? I don’t know the answers to those questions.” 

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