Clive Davis has never seen a documentary on Whitney Houston that captured the artist and the person he knew so well. So he set out more than a year go to produce a movie biopic of the chart-topping singer of such indelible 1980s and ’90s hits such as “Saving All My Love For You,” “So Emotional,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “I Will Always Love You.”
In the latest episode of Variety podcast “Strictly Business,” Davis details how he teamed with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “The Two Popes” screenwriter Anthony McCarten to develop the script for the Houston biopic.
The pair agreed to work together on their own in order to shop a completed script to the major studios and to raise their own financing. After fierce bidding, the Houston movie landed a distribution pact with Sony Pictures (the studio’s sibling music division owns Houston’s catalog) with director Stella Meghie on board as well.
“I didn’t pay a penny to him, and he didn’t pay a penny to me,” Davis says of his work with McCarten. The two hit it off right away, and Davis spent a year introducing him to key figures in Houston’s life. Davis vows that the movie will be a “no holds barred” portrait of the artist, who died tragically in February 2012 at the age of 48 after grappling with drug abuse.
Listen to the latest episode of “Strictly Business” below:
“I have a mission here,” Davis says. “I have a mission to make sure that for all time that the full picture of Whitney Houston is captured in a no-holds-barred film that is musically rich and shows her genius and more of her character than we have seen to date” in other projects.
The plan is to use Houston’s original recordings in the movie, meaning that the actor who lands the plum lead role does not need to have Whitney Houston-level pipes.
“There was a fierce competition for the movie,” Davis says. “I’m happy to say the reaction to the script was good. Almost every studio head called to tell me about their passion for the project. They know Whitney has been captured and the opportunity here is so special and unique.”
Davis also reveals that he and McCarten made an agreement while working on the Houston script to partner in the future if either of them decide to pursue a movie biopic of Janis Joplin. Davis championed the iconoclastic young woman from Port Arthur, Texas who blew the rock world away with her sound and her swagger before her death at age 27 in 1970.
“We agreed there could still be a great film on Janis Joplin,” Davis says. “We have done nothing on that one but we have legally committed to each other to do it together if either of us ever get involved in it.”
Davis’ long career as head of Columbia Records and Arista led him to be a key figure in the careers of Joplin, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, not to mention in later years Houston, Aretha Franklin and Sean Combs. But even after more than a half-century in the biz, Davis says he still keeps his eyes and ears open for the next big thing.
“I still listen to every chart record when it comes out to see how music is changing,” he says.
“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.