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Clive Davis on Why Whitney Houston Biopic ‘Hit Home’ For Him

The legendary singer's mentor and champion reflects on the making of 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody.'

In May of 2019, Pat Houston — Whitney Houston’s sister-in-law and the executor of her estate — and music publisher and marketer Primary Wave announced a partnership that gave the company a 50% stake in Whitney’s assets — including her publishing, master recording revenues, name, likeness and brand — in a deal that valued the estate at $14 million. Since then, Primary Wave says it has quadrupled the estate’s fortunes — a figure it hopes will only explode further after a series of projects that will begin rolling out this fall, including a perfume line, a MAC Cosmetics partnership, an archival book and a biopic out Dec. 21: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, starring relative newcomer Naomi Ackie.

Centered on Whitney’s relationship with her mentor Clive Davis (portrayed by Stanley Tucci) and written by Anthony McCarten — whose previous blockbuster biopics (The Theory of EverythingDarkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody) have all yielded Academy Award wins — the film is being produced by Pat, Davis, McCarten, Primary Wave, Sony Tristar and Compelling Pictures. “My interest with the biopic has everything to do with Clive Davis,” says Pat Houston, noting the film will also contain a previously-unreleased song. “When she was here, he was always a fighter and always leading her career, and musically, he has that same vibe and feeling. You can’t mention Whitney Houston without mentioning Clive Davis, and I wanted it to be about the music and that relationship and how she got there.”

Davis, who worked with McCarten to develop the script and consulted on the historical aspects of the film, spoke to Billboard about bringing “the full picture of who [Whitney] was” to the big screen.

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How did the idea for this biopic come about?

It was time that a full-fledged theatrical biopic be done on Whitney. And by total coincidence, one of my best friends was doing some production work with Anthony McCarten, who had done so well [as screenwriter of] the Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody. So I started meeting with Anthony, and he was very, very interested in writing it. It was my task to really inform him, make sure that every aspect of Whitney was researched. I introduced him to the family, to everyone that had worked with Whitney, including her counselor, so he really embarked on a year to two years of research about Whitney and her life. When we both agreed that we had a final script that was authentic, honest and understood the full nature of Whitney’s life, I introduced him to Pat Houston and to [Primary Wave founder and CEO] Larry Mestel.

Were you involved in the casting?

I met and spent some time with Stanley Tucci, who plays me — and who was everyone’s primary choice, though I did not meet him until after he agreed to do the part. Before he and I spoke, he wanted to and did read my autobiography and saw my documentary [Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives]. And then we Zoomed, and then I went up to Boston, where they were filming, and I met with him in person. I’m extremely pleased with the performance that he gives.

With respect to Naomi Ackie [who plays Houston], we knew it would be Whitney’s voice in the film, so we were not appraising musical performance, but acting strengths. When we watched the audition tapes of the leading candidates, we all agreed on Naomi being very, very special.

How did you feel watching this film come to life?

It hit home. It’s realistic. Scenes between Whitney and me, obviously, were emotionally impactful, from the time we first met to going through the musical, personal relationship we had, the more difficult times in dealing with her problems. I think the film is very accurate in its portrayal of the dialogues we had.

What was it like working with Larry Mestel and Pat Houston?

Larry and I got along extremely well. With our outlook, our goal, our mission, our sense of fulfillment, we were pretty much on target. I found him understanding [of] the big picture. Pat attended every meeting I did. We would all meet together, see drafts of the film, exchange viewpoints and have dialogues as to accuracy. It was obviously a very emotional experience with Pat, too.

What effect do you think the film will have on Whitney’s legacy?

I would hope a very positive effect. I think it shows real depth and understanding of who she was, as well as the magnitude of what her musical life represented. I was an admirer of Bohemian Rhapsody and the Elton John film [Rocketman]. A well-done biography film reviewing the totality of a life as far as the music certainly adds to the legacy of the subject.

With this film and the other Whitney projects coming soon, how does it feel to see her celebrated again?

It’s a combination of enormous pride, enormous regret at her premature passing, wonderment at the uniqueness of her incomparable voice and the impact she had on musicians, artists, singers everywhere, even young ones coming up today. It’s been quite the emotional human experience.

This story will appear in the Nov. 5, 2022, issue of Billboard.