The Tribeca Film Festival kicked off its 16th annual edition at Radio City Music Hall Wednesday night with a star-studded tribute to music industry legend Clive Davis.
Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Jennifer Hudson and Earth, Wind & Fire were among those from Davis’ long list of successes who performed in tribute to the record exec who built Columbia Records into a powerhouse and then did it again at Arista Records and J Records.
Their performances followed the premiere of “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” a documentary by Chris Perkel that chronicled Davis’ shaping of the careers of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, and, of course, Whitney Houston.
Manilow kicked off the event with an impressive 14-song medley of hits from his career that showcased his skills as an arranger as much as a performer. (On his new album, “This Is My Town: Songs of New York,” Manilow performs the arranger’s feat of creating a medley that includes Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”)
Franklin brought the tribute to a thrilling close with a touching version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the Davis-aided hit “Freeway of Love” that revved up her career again in the ‘80s.
“I wasn’t going to miss this evening,” said Franklin, who asked forgiveness for missing some notes as she recovered from an upper respiratory infection. But there was no need for her to worry, especially as her voice soared to bring “Freeway of Love” to new, gospel-inspired close.
It was Hudson, however, who made the biggest impact of the night. A major chunk of the Davis documentary was dedicated to his discovery and nurturing of the late Whitney Houston, focusing on the shocking loss of the singer in 2012. So when Hudson, who opened with “Hallelujah” as a tribute to the late Leonard Cohen, began a medley of songs to honor Houston, the crowd went wild, especially when she walked into the audience to dance with Davis during “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
Hudson said that without Houston, a generation of singers, including herself, may not have been inspired to sing. Franklin was more personal in her appreciation of Davis, saying, “He’s not only the chieftain who sits in his office taking care of his business, he takes care of his artists as well. He is a great record man and a humanitarian.”
To kick off the evening, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo teased the organizers about using a famous midtown venue for a traditionally lower Manhattan event, joking that next year there would be events in Albany, when TriBeCa would stand for “Triangle Below Canada.”