Quick story, courtesy of David Foster: Off the Record. In 1985, David Foster — then a 36-year-old music producer — teamed up with Barbra Streisand on her album covering Broadway standards. She requested that he arrange “Somewhere” from West Side Story with a swelling background sound but no orchestration. He used synthesizers, and then took the finished demo to her mansion and waited confidently for her approval. As he sums up proudly, “I killed it!”
That kind of arrogance and self-congratulatory attitude permeates throughout Off the Record, rendering it almost impossible to glean any insight into the iconic Grammy-winning producer. The documentary is not so much a probing look at the life of the man who’s churned out pop hits such as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” as it is a 90-minute testimonial exulting his excellence. In the words of Celine Dion, “He’s one of the greatest producers of all time.” And Andrea Bocelli: “He’s the best producer on the planet.” And Quincy Jones: “You’re dealing with god.”
Back on Earth, Foster tells his biography using the framework of a trip to New York City’s frenetic Times Square. (What’s he doing in a city he proclaims to hate? We never find out.) Before he teamed up with the likes of Dion, Michael Bublé and Josh Groban, he grew up in a small town in Canada’s British Columbia with sisters and loving parents. The word “perfect” is bandied around with regularity. He had a perfect childhood. And, one day when his mother was fussing with the piano in the living room, he discovered he had perfect pitch. The prodigy was playing in Chuck Berry’s backup band when he was still a teenager.
There are almost no ebbs and flows to Foster’s career, at least none that he cares to admit. He played keyboards in a group called Skylark in 1973, which led to playing for George Harrison, which led to arranging and co-writing the smash 1979 Earth, Wind and Fire album, I Am. Foster is also not the introspective musician wistfully strumming his instrument and grappling with art versus commerce. The man is not shy about his desire to make mainstream pop hits. Though some music critics may blanche at some of his sappier stylings, to his credit, he’s shepherded success with breathtaking consistency.
The St. Elmo’s Fire theme song (1985), Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable album (1991) and The Bodyguard soundtrack (1992) are just some of the works featured in Off the Record. There’s a steady rhythm to the anecdotes: His collaborators are quick to paint a magnanimous portrait of his genius and then Foster pats himself on the back detailing the backstories. The lone — and most fascinating — exception is the Chicago chapter, when Foster decided to strip the classic group of its patented horn section and give them radio-friendly songs such as “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Speaking on-camera, some of the original members remain embittered about the development while ex-lead singer and Foster friend Peter Cetera praises his decision. Foster’s take? “I was cocky,” he sniffs, “But they’re still on tour riding the backs of those songs.”
Perhaps true to form, there’s a bit of revisionist history in play as well. Much time is devoted to the making of Dion’s first English-speaking album, Unison, in 1991, and his insistence that she cover Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” with big notes. In reality, she recorded it for her Falling into You album when she was already an established star. And “Unbreak My Heart” came after his output on The Bodyguard, not before. He also gives a short shrift to his many collaborations with his then-wife, Linda Thompson.
Only when Foster dares to expose his vulnerabilities that his film becomes interesting. When it comes to relationships, Foster admits that he’s “a runner” and has never been willing to stick around to deal with issues. (Is that a warning sign to his fifth wife, singer Katharine McPhee, who moons over him on-camera?) He’s a workaholic and control-freak to a fault.
Bravado aside, Foster is palpably concerned about his legacy. He acknowledges that many people only know his name because his ex-wife, Yolanda Hadid, starred on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills — he insists he never wanted to do the show — and because his former step-kids, Brandon and Brody Jenner (of The Hills fame), once turned his household into a reality show called The Princes of Malibu in 2005. Per the complicated family tree, he also has a loose connection to all those Kardashian and Jenner girls. Foster doesn’t outright say it, but he wants the doc to serve as a reminder of his musical savvy, as evidenced by the 16 Grammys lined up on the grand piano that he plays inside his home. For all the recognizable chart-topping music that we hear in Off the Record, that image speaks volumes.
David Foster: Off the Record will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday (Sept. 9).