‘Whitney was a natural beauty, not a natural actress’: inside Hollywood’s big Bodyguard gamble

Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard - Alamy
Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard - Alamy

Blame Paul Young. Of all the entertainment industry figures who had a hand in the mazy backstory of the biggest selling soundtrack of all time – also the biggest album by a female artist ever, a 45 million-selling blockbuster this month celebrating its 30th anniversary – the British pop-soul singer's role is perhaps the most crucial.

Not that I'd dare suggest that to Clive Davis, the legendary record man who helped put together the music to The Bodyguard. I've just asked the 90-year-old music industry titan who discovered Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys to explain how he became involved in the Bodyguard soundtrack – a collection of songs sung mostly by his protégé, Whitney Houston.

“When you talk about The Bodyguard soundtrack, I became involved in The Bodyguard film,” emphasises the New Yorker, mildly but at the same time pointedly schooling me. Equally, while The Bodyguard is a film that is, perhaps uniquely, best known for its key song – Houston’s ultimate mic drop moment, her cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You – as Davis tells it, the music element almost never happened.

“Although it was Whitney's decision to do a movie, and she and [Houston’s acting agent] Nicole David brought the script to me, I wasn't that impressed when I first read it,” he says. Davis describes the draft he read as “pure thriller”, with a plot that “didn't call really for much singing, if at all” and that didn’t help audiences understand “why Whitney[’s character] needed a bodyguard”. He was also aware that the project had been doing the Hollywood rounds, and had once been intended as a vehicle for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen.

Beyond that Houston, then 28, was a music superstar. A time-served record company man, then the president of Arista Records (the label he founded in 1974), Davis had an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it attitude born of, as he puts it, “a career of discovering artists [that] began in 1967… So I discovered Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Earth Wind & Fire…”

So when it came to Houston’s desired pivot to Hollywood, “I was admittedly nervous,” Davis tells me over Zoom from his New York home.

“Look: her first album sold 22 million copies. The second worldwide sold 23 million copies. So the idea of her doing a film, without really previously ever testing her acting chops, it was speculative. It was risky. You don't come fully confident that she can do everything. And will the script be up to the mettle of somebody who would become the best-selling vocalist of all time?”

But before we get to that, let’s go to early 1992. Paul Young’s version of What Becomes of the Brokenhearted was climbing the Billboard Hot 100. The British singer’s cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 Motown hit reached No. 22 that March, the same month that the film from which it was taken was up for two Oscars. Fried Green Tomatoes would win neither, for Best Adapted Screenplay nor Best Supporting Actress for Jessica Tandy. But three months after its release in American cinemas, the Alabama-set film was a full-blown hit, on its way to grossing 10 times its $11 million budget. And its lead soundtrack song was equally a smash.

Over in California, this presented a dilemma for the team behind another Hollywood film currently in production. “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted was our original [choice of] song,” begins Maureen Crowe, the veteran music supervisor who worked on The Bodyguard, referring to the music for a key moment in the plot. “And it wasn't working, because Kevin did want to start it off a capella. And when you slow that song down, it's like a dirge: ‘Happiness is just an illusion, filled with sadness and confusion...’ You wanna kill yourself at the end of it!” she says, laughing.

Whitney Houston's video for I Will Always Love You - YouTube
Whitney Houston's video for I Will Always Love You - YouTube

But Kevin Costner was insistent that this music selection, an aching, lovelorn ballad to be sung by Houston’s character, was the correct choice for their narrative needs. Hot from his winning seven Oscars for 1990’s Dances With Wolves (which he directed, produced and starred in), he had The Bodyguard’s titular role. He also ended up, according to Davis, the film’s de facto director.

After his less-than-impressed reading of that early script, Davis sent a letter to The Bodyguard’s actual director, Mick Jackson, and to Costner. As Davis recounts it to me now, he wrote: “I know that because I'm the head of Whitney's record company, you might expect that I would be disappointed by the lack of music in the film. But let me speak as someone who was on the board of directors of CBS when CBS first went into film. Let me speak as someone who's on the board of directors of Columbia Pictures, because Arista is fully owned by Columbia Pictures. And I'm writing because this film is nowhere near fulfilling the potential of what Whitney could contribute to the role.

“The songs that she can sing, the respect and appeal from that, so directly ties into a need for a bodyguard, and provides the foundation of chemistry, potentially, between the two [characters].”

The letter, he adds, is reprinted in his memoir, the liberally stardust sprinkled The Soundtrack of My Life. And it is, although in the 2013 New York Times bestseller, Davis states that he composed his letter in response to his viewing “initial rushes of the movie”. As he wrote in the book: “Whitney was a natural beauty, but she was not a natural actress. She held her own, but you couldn’t say her performance was inspiring”. Hence his having “no choice” but to write “a lengthy letter” to address the movie’s “serious problems”.

Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard - Alamy
Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard - Alamy

Either way, as he says to me now, “by hearsay, after my letter, Kevin Costner really became in actuality the director for the rest of the film”.

On the set of The Bodyguard, Crowe had up-close-and-personal experience of the actor’s influence. He was convinced What Becomes of the Brokenhearted was the perfect choice for the number that Houston’s character, actress and singer Rachel Marron, would sing to Costner’s former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer, informing him, via the lyrics, that their love affair had no future.

“Kevin was like: ‘I think it's gonna work, I think it's gonna work,’” Crowe says. “Because Kevin would make song playlists for himself as the character. So he spent a lot of time developing what [his character of] the bodyguard was and what the singer had to do. And he knew that the song, in the end, had to be a tribute to him, to make the story work.”

But as they filmed that early spring, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted was inescapable on American radio – and, to Crowe’s mind, now irretrievably tied to another film.

“It was climbing the charts, and we were shooting, and we're still working on our version. Kevin goes: ‘Why can’t there be two versions of the song?’ I said: ‘Our film will be coming out later this year, it'll just seem like we couldn't come up with an original idea. That we're just like: “Oh, that was on the radio, we'll do that!”’”

Costner tasked Crowe – Founding President of the Guild of Music Supervisors – with finding another song to replace the Motown standard. That said: when I put it to Davis that What Becomes of the Brokenhearted was considered the key song, he replies: “You say considered – it was mentioned as a candidate. But the search never stopped.”

Crowe explains the role the song had to fulfil: “It had to answer the question: what would you sing to somebody that you had an affair with, who had just taken a bullet for you and had saved your son's life, but you are going to go in completely separate directions after your brief affair, and you will probably never see him again? So, bittersweet memories.

“I always say when you're trying to find a song: what does the song have to do in the story? And if you ask enough questions, the song will present itself.”

The singing scene would take place in a bar. It was yet to be shot, so producer Jim Wilson described it to Crowe: a working man's bar, in California. Some guys have cowboy hats, some guys are ranchers, sawdust on the floor, beer on tap, hotdogs, dancing to the jukebox...

Crowe considered “California oldies”, songs by The Eagles or Neil Young. Houston, she says, was thinking closer to home – “maybe we could do an R&B song or something like that”, in the music supervisor’s re-telling. Then, even though the producers “were very adamant that they didn't want country [music], because Hollywood has a feeling that country makes it something else”, Crowe remembered a song from Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 album Prisoner in Disguise, an interpretation of a 1973 song by Parton.

“So I did play [Ronstadt’s] version of I Will Always Love You to them, and it just served the story.” The Bodyguard’s lead actress, she says, played along. “Kevin was the guardian of the story, and Whitney did the film because Kevin asked her to, and she relied on and trusted him – he had the Academy Awards. When you have a talent like Whitney Houston, there was a reason she signed with Clive Davis – she's going with the best.”

Davis approved of the new song choice – with, of course, some caveats. “It had full potential, lyrically and musically. Dolly Parton’s was a great record in its own right,” he says of a song that was Parton’s own goodbye, to former musical partner Porter Wagoner. “But it was not a mainstream pop standard; it was not [like] everybody knew that song as being a big huge pop hit. Now, it did have a significance – [we] really looked at it as raw material. With the lyric, with the music, with the potential arrangement, could it fulfil the potential of that scene? And the answer was yes.”

Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston

Still, though, it still wasn’t plain sailing. There’s a story that the version of I Will Always Love You that was released was an early, demo version. Crowe confirmed that to me, that it was a “board mix” (as in mixing board) recorded by music producer and songwriter David Foster. He’s the multiple Grammy-winning mentor of Celine Dion and Michael Bublé who helped Houston rearrange Parton’s song as a haunting, methodically building and ultimately rafters-rattling soul ballad.

I ask Davis if it’s true that it’s the board mix that was released in November 1992, spent 14 and 10 weeks at Number One in the US and UK respectively, and that’s been streamed over half-a-billion times on Spotify.

“That is correct. You used the word ‘board’, I would use first rough draft!” he says with a gravelly chuckle. “David Foster sent it to me, and I loved it. And he said: ‘Alright, don't get demo-itis! Don't fall in love! Because I’m gonna sweeten it, I’m gonna add strings and horns and do my thing!’

“And David is brilliant. But every time he sent me a subsequent mix, it sounded slick. The raw purity of that first mix, with the a capella [opening bars]… just haunted me. But David kept saying: ‘Just wait, I'm not done yet.’ But every subsequent mix that David sent me just sounded a little sweet. It just didn’t have that raw power of that first draft.”

Meanwhile Davis, co-executive producer of the soundtrack album alongside Houston, was under pressure from the studio behind the movie, Warner Bros. They wanted a single from the soundtrack to precede the film’s release. He was, he tells me, instructed that he had to release a single “tonight”. So, as he puts it, “I had to make a singular decision. And I decided to go with that first mix. And the initial reaction of David was quite severe. I don't think there was a swear word that was left out of the dictionary. But to his credit, within 24 hours, he called me and said: ‘I deeply apologise, now that I’m calm in my home and now that I'm listening. You're right. This is magic. Thank you.’”

Once again, Davis had won the day, and The Bodyguard soundtrack would go on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. To be fair, it’s been a lifetime of coming out on top for a man with five Grammy Awards of his own, is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and who still holds down a day job as chief creative officer at Sony Music. At his 90th birthday party in New York in April, he was serenaded by just some of the talent with whose careers he’s been involved: Springsteen, Keys, Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Dionne Warwick, Kenny G, Art Garfunkel and Earth Wind & Fire.

Whitney Houston with Clive Davis in 1999 - Getty
Whitney Houston with Clive Davis in 1999 - Getty

But a special piece of his heart is always reserved for Whitney Houston. Since her death from a drug overdose, aged 48, in 2012, he’s been a de facto keeper of her flame, not to mention a staunch defender of her reputation. This month he has another Whitney-focused film in cinemas, the biopic I Want to Dance with Somebody, which is produced by Sony Pictures. He says that the story of The Bodyguard is “mentioned and integrated into the film. [And] there was definite recognition of how I Will Always Love You came about.”

He heaps suitably effusive praise on British actress Naomi Ackie (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). The 30-year-old Londoner plays Houston and he admits he’d never heard of her previously.

“She's wonderful… She did a very, very impressive audition tape. The voice in the film is all Whitney. But Naomi gives a really great, Oscar-worthy performance in this film. She captures Whitney brilliantly, naturally. You get over the fact that they don't necessarily look alike.”

He’ll also give a shout-out to Stanley Tucci, the actor with arguably an even more difficult role: portraying Clive Davis to the satisfaction of Clive Davis. They hadn’t previously met, although Davis was aware of his work. “He wasn’t the first choice of mine. But when they told me – because I didn't meet or speak with him before he was cast – he and I did connect. And we had some lengthy conversations. On Netflix is the documentary of my life,” he says of the film of his book. “And he had seen that documentary – twice.”

During filming, Davis flew to the set in Boston and the pair spent time together. “It’s obviously difficult seeing someone playing you, I never had that experience before. But I am really happy that he conveys, I think, the essence of me.”

I Want to Dance with Somebody comes four years after British filmmaker Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Whitney. That was an “official” film, made with the blessing of Houston’s estate and which featured an interview with Davis, yet it didn’t stint on detailing Houston’s drug abuse or torrid private life. I ask Davis how important it was for him that the new film tells a different story.

“It was vitally important that this film tell the true story,” he replies firmly. “Not a different story. But the true story. Because I was very disappointed in what was called previously the official documentary of Whitney Houston.”

Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard - Alamy
Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard - Alamy

He emits a sharp exhalation of exasperation. “I discovered her, I worked with her,” he begins. Macdonald, he notes, without mentioning his name, “didn't use any of the music of Whitney. He did not want that to be a part [of his film]. He said, ‘it's just not part of my expertise…’ It was so disappointing, so wanting, so sensationalistic. Not at all the full story of contemporary music’s greatest singer – and as an all-time singer, it’s she, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand. Those three tower in the female voice category.

“So it was very important [with the new biopic] not to whitewash. [But] this is an honest and accurate film, and an emotional film. It also has the music that affected the entire generation, and is still affecting music fans all over the world. So it was very important that the full picture [is told]. Yes, the drug addiction was tragic. It led to a premature death that still hurts. But the full life story, and who she was and what she was, is authentically there for you guys to be the judge of it.”

But to end on The Bodyguard: of all the things Clive Davis achieved with Whitney Houston in her career, and across his career in general, where would he rank this project?

“Listen, you don't want to get comparing children,” he says, mentioning that he’s currently loving Springsteen’s new covers album, Only the Strong Survive (“I signed Bruce in 1972! How wonderful, 50 years later, to listen to him revisit some of the greatest R&B classics of all time!”). And as he notes, “I've had a wonderful life in music, an unexpected life, an accidental life. Found a passion that I never thought was there. So I've had some wonderful experiences. But The Bodyguard experience was unique.”

The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album (Legacy Recordings) is out now on two new vinyl editions. I Wanna Dance With Somebody is released on December 26