Clive Davis Still Watches The Bodyguard When He Misses Whitney Houston
At 90 years old, Clive Davis is still checking items off of his creative to-do list. The latest goal for the legendary record producer? Shepherding a big-budget biopic about the life and legacy of Whitney Houston to the big screen. This Friday, Davis is finally seeing that through with I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
The biopic, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Naomi Ackie as the late superstar, tells the entirety of Houston’s story, from its humble, gospel-inflected beginning, to its hopeful, but ultimately tragic end. There’s an undercurrent of warmth through it all, which Davis coproduced, cradling Houston’s legacy and portraying her toughest moments with as much dignity as possible.
“The film is bold and honest—and really soars musically,” Davis tells Vanity Fair. “It really celebrates the once-in-a-lifetime artist that Whitney was.”
Davis is portrayed in the film by Stanley Tucci, who accurately captures the producer’s calm persona and clipped manner of speech. Davis, for his part, adored Tucci’s performance, as well as Ackie’s. “I think she gives, clearly, an Oscar-worthy performance,” he says of the British star, who adopted Houston’s mannerisms and airy New Jersey accent. For Davis, getting I Wanna Dance into the world is something of a relief, especially after his personal distaste for a past “unsatisfying” documentary about Houston that he felt didn’t accurately tell her story. Davis, who discovered Houston at 19 years old and helped turn her into a musical icon, wanted to get her story out there in his own way.
“It did not capture the Whitney Houston that needed to be captured,” he says, “which is the mission we had in making this film.”
Vanity Fair: How was premiere night for you?
Clive Davis: The premiere was so gratifying. Seeing it with an audience and feedback really was wonderful. Our hopes as to the quality of the film were really wonderfully fulfilled.
You Zoomed twice with Stanley Tucci, who plays you in the movie, before making the film. What questions did he ask you about your life? What did he want to know, as an actor?
We just conversed normally. I never got the feeling that he was interviewing me. He had seen my documentary twice and had read my autobiography, so it was just a normal exchange of conversation.
He wasn’t peppering you with actorly questions.
He wasn’t peppering me, no.
The film recreates so many of Whitney’s key performances, from her audition for you, to her debut on the Merv Griffin Show, to the Oprah comeback. Do you have a personal favorite live performance of Whitney’s?
Her first audition [for me] when she unexpectedly sang “The Greatest Love of All.” I had commissioned that song eight years earlier for The Greatest, about the life of Muhammad Ali. It was a real good record. When Whitney started singing that song, I got chills. She was finding more meaning in that song than I ever knew was there, on her own. And she sang “Home” from The Wiz. I was so impressed. That probably was the one [performance] that I was most affected by.
Was there a moment when you realized she was going to be one of the defining artists of your career?
I think you see it reflected in the film, after the feat of achieving seven number-one consecutive records, breaking the all-time record. I never knew that she, being as young as she was, would appreciate the historic significance of it, so I did sit with her one day and I said, “I know you know the rarity of a number one record, but I don’t know if you know the rarity of seven consecutive number one records. An all-time record. What I want to know, Whitney, is are you pinching yourself?” That phrase—“Are you pinching yourself?”—became byplay with us. At the most unexpected time, she’d lean over whisper, “I’m pinching myself.” I wanted to make sure that she understood how memorable all of this was that was taking place.
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