Singer-actor Whitney Houston’s life ended tragically in 2012, but her voice is resounding as loudly as it has at any time in the years since, with this weekend’s long-awaited release of the biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” coming on top of the RCA and Legacy labels’ 30th anniversary re-release of the blockbuster “Bodyguard” soundtrack.
“I feel as great about the new movie, as I have always felt about her music,” says Clive Davis, the legendary label executive who founded Arista Records in 1974 and signed Whitney Houston in 1983, eventually becoming a confidante and father figure.
Davis’ latest role is that of co-producer of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” a job he relishes while acknowledging his actors with pride. “Stanley (Tucci) does a wonderful job of playing me. And though the vocals are all Whitney’s, the actress, Naomi Ackie, does a remarkable performance and really captures Whitney. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.”
The reasons for making this new Whitney Houston biopic go far beyond selling records and repairing her image due to issues of drug addiction. In Davis’ mind, nothing that has been done on film to document Whitney’s life, to date, has captured her. “Not at all,” says Davis.
“Our job was not to run from or run to. Our goal was to capture Whitney, the person, the singer. To make an honest film that deals with every issue. An honest, accurate picture of who she was. And certainly, to capture the incredible music that compelled her to be the greatest of contemporary stars during her lifetime. As for all-time, Whitney is up there at the top with Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand.”
“’I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ is a love letter to Whitney from Clive and the family, a way for them to set the record straight and to celebrate Houston’s music – the driving force in her life,” says Maureen Crowe, the original music supervisor for “The Bodyguard.”
Crowe and Davis both shared their memories about the making of the Houston-driven soundtrack to “The Bodyguard” — certified 18-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and most easily remembered for Houston’s rousing rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” now reconfigured for a 30th anniversary reissue, Beyond that, as album releases go, RCA has the ew film’s soundtrack, subtitled “The Movie: Whitney New, Classic and Reimagined.” And in February, Legacy will re-release Houston’s first two studio albums on vinyl as part of a new look at the vocalist’s rich catalog.
Focusing on the origin story of the “Bodyguard” soundtrack, Crowe lovingly talks about the divine partnership between Houston and Davis, and how the film’s producer and male lead, Kevin Costner, long had the singing star in his sights.
“Kevin, at that time, was a multiple Oscar winner and an exceptional filmmaker,” notes Crowe, pointing out that his “Dances with Wolves” had cleaned up at the 63rd Academy Awards, winning seven Oscars, including best picture and best director for its star. Crowe wound up working for Costner and “The Bodyguard” after being music supervisor for the series version of “Fame” (“all 71 episodes, a unique show, then, for having so much original and existing music”).
“Whitney really trusted Kevin that her first major film experience would be a great one, that she could rely on him for ‘The Bodyguard’ to be a success, and that the story worked,” says Crowe. “Whitney was smart about having excellent people around her, people as ambitious as she was. She had Clive on the music side, and Kevin on the film side. She was well-covered.”
Crowe recalls that when the recording sessions for “The Bodyguard” commenced in 1991, producer-writer David Foster’s swelling ballad “I Have Nothing” was among its first tracks, a song that showcased Houston’s might.
“Clive thought it was crucial for her to have songs like ‘I Have Nothing’,” says Crowe. “One thing that Clive didn’t understand about the role of the singer in the script’s first iteration was how little musical performance there was — no sold-out arena scenes to show off how big of an artist she was. As originally written, the story was smaller, more intimate, told from within her inner world. To that, Clive was concerned: ‘What is he protecting her from? She’s never in an arena!’”
“Whitney really wanted them, though, and when L.A. realized how much ‘Queen of the Night’ would be used, in rehearsal and performance scenes, he was sold. Plus, when L.A. saw how ‘Boomerang’ buried all the songs that he and Babyface had made, he was happy to be a part of ‘The Bodyguard.'”
Then there was “I Will Always Love You,” a Houston song so precious to Davis that when was given the DAT of its raw mix after its first recording, he put In his breast pocket and never let it out of his sight.
“’I Will Always Love You’ is a real songwriter’s song,” says Crowe of the Dolly Parton hit, first released in 1974. “I had that track in my back pocket ever since I first heard it as a kid on Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Prisoner in Disguise’ album.”
It should be no surprise that, for a soundtrack so crucial to its filmmakers and its record label, Parton’s sweet country ballad was not their first choice. Crowe states the first and most serious contender for a climactic moment in “The Bodyguard” was “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” the 1966 single from Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin, written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean.
“Kevin always wanted that moment to feature Whitney singing a ballad and starting that moment a cappella, as her message to his character in the film,” says Crowe. “Slow down ‘Broken Hearted,’ however, and it just doesn’t work. The song is too sad. ‘I walk alone, bitter’ — that’s tough.”
What was needed, and fast, was a song that would work in an earlier date scene between the bodyguard and superstar – “something in Kevin’s character’s world” – as well as at film’s end as a song to be sung back to him in gratitude for saving her and her child’s life. “Kevin’s bodyguard had taken a bullet for Whitney’s character,” says Crowe. “They had an affair. They were probably never going to see each other again. When you set those circumstances for a song to work, sometimes an answer presents itself.”
The song Crowe brought Costner was “I Will Always Love You.”
Davis wasn’t on set at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel when Jackson, Costner and Houston began the scene’s first run-throughs.
“Clive hadn’t heard the first recording of ‘I Will Always Love You’ because we did it on the set, live, in Florida at the Fontainebleau,” starts Crowe. “That’s how raw it was. We didn’t even get to record the third verse live, so we went to the studio to finish that.”
Crowe jokes about how Clive Davis was “bugging to hear the song,” and how music producer David Foster just wanted to placate Arista’s boss so to move forward with his own work on the film.
“Foster’s idea was to give Clive a board mix,” says Crowe, conspiratorially. “Not the final mix, just this first rough mix. Which is the one that Clive fell madly in love with. David did all these other grand, elaborate mixes after that, but Clive said, ‘Nope, I’m going with the board mix.’ And David Foster was furious. He called me back to tell me that he had yelled at Clive and couldn’t believe that he was using a board mix to hand in to the film’s producers. All I could say to Foster was that it would probably all work out in the end. Kevin was the ultimate decision-maker focused on making ‘The Bodyguard’ great, but Clive’s goal was, and is, to make and release music that will live forever.”
“I Will Always Love You,” the first single from “The Bodyguard,” became the biggest-selling single by a female artist at the time with over 20 million copies sold, and it stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for a then-record-breaking 14 weeks. The soundtrack itself earned Houston three Grammys, including album of the year. “And subsequently, I wound up working for Clive at Arista Records,” says Maureen Crowe.
In regard to connecting Whitney Houston to her first film role with “The Bodyguard,” Davis reminds Variety that the dictate came from the singer, as she wanted to start making movies.
“She sold 22, 23 million copies of her first album, even more for her second album, had been breaking records, and was at the peak — not only of her career, but of any career,” recalls Davis. With Nicole David (Houston’s agent at William Morris), they decided on “The Bodyguard” as Whitney’s next move.
Davis concurs with Crowe that, after seeing a rough draft of the first scenes for the screenplay of “The Bodyguard,” he disliked what he saw.
“It was an ordinary thriller that didn’t at all show why Whitney’s character needed a bodyguard in the first place. It had very little music. And it was on its way to being shot, produced and marketed as a thriller. As a first film for Whitney, it did not capture what was needed. Not just for her, but for the film.”
Davis laughs when recalling his having written a letter to “Bodyguard” director Mick Jackson and Costner, telling them that they “would probably expect that the head of a record label would complain about the lack of music in your film,” he says. “But as a student of film and a man on the board of Columbia Pictures, your film needs Whitney to soar musically. You must give her a need for a bodyguard, and that would help with the chemistry between her character and Kevin’s. To that, Kevin was immediately responsive, agreed that the film needed it, and stated they would put my idea into action.” Costner wound up as effectively a second director on “The Bodyguard,” responsible for how that film reached the finish line.
From there, Davis states that he, Foster and Foster’s then-wife, lyricist Linda Thompson, went into formation with the label executive to bring Houston “Run to You” from songwriters Allan Rich and Jud Friedman, along with the Foster-Thompson-penned “I Have Nothing.”
Thinking about the type of song that Davis sought for Houston’s cinematic debut in “The Bodyguard” came down to how the twosome had worked since the day their professional relationship began. “My A&R staff and I would gather 16, 17 songs that we thought might suit her, I’d go through those and find candidates for breakouts and singles,” Davis says. “Then she and I — with no one else there, ever… ever — would meet in my office or in my bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and go back and forth… Somehow, we always connected. We just connected. We knew intuitively what a song must do and what its arrangement should be. A song like Jud and Allan’s ‘Run to You’ suited Whitney, and it was crafted to fit the film. And ‘I Have Nothing’? Such a classic.”
Davis goes on to say that it was Costner who suggested to the executive music team (“namely Whitney, David Foster and myself”) that Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was the song that would be used as the film’s most climactic song. “To that, there was no argument or debate,” says Davis. “All three of us responded affirmatively: ‘I Will Always Love You,’ with a different arrangement, would be perfect for that scene.”
Davis thoroughly agrees with Crowe’s recollection as to what he did with the original raw mix of “I Will Always Love You” in DAT form, and how David Foster lost his cool over Davis’ decision to use the desk mix for the soundtrack.
“The stories are true,” he says. “David was thrilled with the vocal, and sent me the rough mix before its instrumentation. And he told me not to get demo-itis, to not fall in love with this raw mix because he was nowhere near finished. I loved it, though. He began adding more musical instrumentation and enhancements, but I still loved the rough draft. Two weeks went by, and I was getting enormous pressure from Warner Brothers (the distribution company for “The Bodyguard”) to pick and release a single. I was open to hearing David’s subsequent mixes, but when the deadline ran out, I had to make a choice between that first very rough mix and one with added instrumentation, and I submitted the one that I loved. To this, for maybe 24 hours, David was hot under the collar. After those 24 hours, David called me to say how he had never gotten so much response for a song.”
The impact of Houston during her most epochal scene and vocal in “The Bodyguard” — starting in silence, then bursting with emotion and poignant, explosive arrangement — is something Davis suggests audiences look out for during the “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” biopic.
“Recording soundtrack songs such as ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘I Have Nothing’ are powerful moments in an even more powerful film,” says Davis of the biopic. “And 30 years since ‘The Bodyguard,’ what I have shared with you about its making, from the changes in the film to the inclusion of all of its songs, I believe that Kevin and Whitney made a classic. An all-time movie was created, as was the greatest-selling soundtrack of all time. That is a beautiful memory for me, and one that is still so emotionally rewarding.”