Whitney Houston became one of the world’s biggest pop stars very, very soon after the release of her self-titled debut album in 1985. She had always shown a compelling screen presence in her videos, and she had received offers to act in films, but she had never taken the plunge. In the early ’90s, however, Houston landed the role that, however briefly, would make her a movie star. At that point, Kevin Costner was basically the king of Hollywood. Costner was already a big deal when he directed and starred in the 1990s dance with wolves. This film was a success and it won Costner the Best Director Oscar. Coster followed it with two more hits, in 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and jfk. Then he wanted to do The bodyguard, and he wanted Whitney Houston in it. The stars have aligned. Costner had to wait a year for the Houston program to open, but he waited and they made the movie together.
Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay for The bodyguard, a love story between a former Secret Service agent and the pop star he was hired to protect, in 1975, shortly after Dolly Parton’s first release “I Will Always Love You.” At the time, Kasdan was a copywriter who wanted to be a screenwriter and wrote screenplays in his spare time. When he wrote The bodyguard, Kasdan thought of it as a Steve McQueen/Diana Ross movie, which sounds pretty cool. The script gave Kasdan an agent, and they bought him for a few years before Warner Bros. finally settled on the film in 1977. For a little while, Diana Ross was actually attached to star in the film alongside her then-boyfriend, Ryan O’. Neal, but that didn’t happen.
Things went well for Lawrence Kasdan. All of his unproduced scripts caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and they brought in Kasdan for heavy work. In a short time, Kasdan co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, The Raiders of the Lost Arkand Return of the Jedi. Kasdan also became a director and he made body heat and The big thrill. In 1985, Kasdan directed Kevin Costner in the Western Silveradoand Costner discovered Kasdan’s script for The bodyguard. When Costner became a big enough star, he and Kasdan came together to finally make The bodyguard, with Coster starring and with him and Kasdan producing. Whitney Houston was chosen and Mick Jackson, a British journeyman who had made Steve Martin’s vehicle LA’s story, came to lead. Apart from Costner and Houston, there aren’t really any stars in The bodyguard. The third cast member is Spandau Ballet member and credited co-writer of “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” Gary Kemp, who has a fun role as the slimy manager.
Until very recently, I had never seen The bodyguard. It was one of those films that you sort of absorb through cultural osmosis, and I never cared enough to sit through the thing. Last night, however, I ate an edible and settled down, and I have to ask: what is the Shit was this movie? For about 20 minutes, The bodyguard looks like it’s gonna be a pretty watchable pot from the early 90s, something in the vein of patriot games Where In the line of fire. But then the awkward plot twists pile up, and the film becomes a surreal howl of a melodrama just as it hits the oft-parodied scene where Costner drags Houston away from an unruly nightclub. The funniest part of this stage is the sight of all those motherfuckers getting too crunk at a Whitney Houston concert. (It’s technically a Rachel Marron gig, but Whitney pretty much plays herself.)
At the end of the film, the aforementioned slimy manager yells at Costner for overprotecting Whitney Houston and making it too hard for her to do her job. And it’s like: Buddy! Do you remember when that lady’s sister hired a hitman to assassinate her? And then the hitman accidentally shot the sister instead? And also the bodyguard made a flying tackle to knock Whitney’s son off a boat, seconds before the boat exploded? This all happened 10 minutes ago! These seem to be legitimate causes for concern! But then, the hardest thing to buy is the idea that Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston would fall in love in the first place.
Whitney got a lot of snark for her performance in The bodyguard, including a Razzie nomination, but I think it’s pretty good. She has an easy and natural screen presence. She does not, however, generates no chemistry with Kevin Costner. I don’t blame Whitney Houston for that. She was married to Bobby Brown in real life. The idea of her getting all hot for that tan golf daddy is a bit of a stretch.
Doing The bodyguard, Whitney Houston recorded six songs for the soundtrack. Originally, the film’s big centerpiece was supposed to be a cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 Motown hit, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted.” (The original “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” peaked at #7. That’s an 8.) Houston and David Foster, the schlockmeister producer of Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” was working on this cover, and it wasn’t quite going to fall into place. Then former Number Ones artist Paul Young covered “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” for the Grilled green tomatoes soundtrack, and its version peaked at #22. The bodyguard needed a new song.
Kevin Costner liked the idea of Houston singing a country song. Everyone was skeptical, but Costner and Maureen Crowe, the film’s music supervisor, put together a tape of potential songs. One of the songs on the tape was Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 cover of “I Will Always Love You”. David Foster understood how “I Will Always Love You” could sound like a soft track and he put together a demo. Whitney Houston loved it. The bodyguard had his great song.
Just before Houston recorded her version of “I Will Always Love You”, David Foster called Dolly Parton to tell her that they were covering the song and using Linda Ronstadt’s version as a base. Parton was happy, but she told Foster that Ronstadt’s version didn’t include the third verse—the “I wish you joy and happiness” part—and that Houston should make sure to keep it. Foster did not have a copy of Parton’s version on hand, so she told him the lyrics to the third verse over the phone. Foster changed his arrangement to make room for this verse.
In the almost absurd tale about The bodyguard, “I will always love you” plays a crucial role. When the Houston/Costner romance first begins, it’s because Houston pretty much orders Costner to take her out on a date. They are going to see Akira Kurosawa Yojimbowhat made me especially want to watch Yojimbo, and they have a drink in a country bar. There they dance to a cover of “I Will Always Love You” recorded by John Doe of X. (This will probably be the only time I mention X in this column, and they don’t have any Hot 100 hits to add. But damn it, I love this band.)
At the end of the film, after Costner saves Houston’s life and they realize they won’t work as a couple, the two stars share one last big, awkward kiss. Then we see Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” on a stage somewhere while Costner moves on to bodyguard someone else. In the film, Houston sings the song live, and this live version is the one she released. It was his idea. It was also his idea to use his touring band on the song, rather than session musicians. That’s why the smooth-jazz sax solo comes from Houston sideman Kirk Whalum and not Kenny G or anyone. Costner wanted Houston to start the song a cappella because it would work better for the film. David Foster was convinced it was a terrible idea, but he went along with it. When Houston actually shot the scene, however, she nailed the entire song in a few takes, and Foster knew she was doing something amazing.
Whitney Houston really has been do something amazing. Dolly Parton’s original “I Will Always Love You” is a great song, and it’s also completely different from the one Whitney Houston did. Parton’s version is soft, tender and almost uncomfortably intimate. The chorus is still huge, but when Parton sings that she knows she’s not what this person needs, it’s almost conversational. On the original, Parton does not sing the third verse; she speaks it. Whitney Houston does things differently. His version is a pure unstoppable bomb. It’s meteors crashing and volcanoes erupting. It’s a thunderous juggernaut, and it would be a thunderous juggernaut even if it was all just the voice of Whitney Houston.
Whitney Houston had one of the greatest pop careers of all time, but “I Will Always Love You” is something more than a signature song. It’s the signature song that threatens to eclipse every other monster hit Houston has ever had. The title of the song is literally inscribed on Houston’s tombstone. It’s a colossal, overwhelming display of dominance – a great singer bulldozing us with the sheer force of her voice. I can’t even begin to calculate how many times I’ve heard Whitney Houston sing “I Will Always Love You,” and that final chorus always stops me in my tracks every time.
Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston’s top pop chart contender of the early ’90s, could never have done “I Will Always Love You” the way Houston did. No one else could have done it like this. Houston was perfectly capable of Carey’s showy melisma, and she does some of it on “I Will Always Love You,” but she does it selectively. At first, Houston holds back. This a cappella overture is remarkable for its balance and restraint. Houston sings softly and she only bends the notes when they have to be. When she sings the word “you”, Houston stretches it out to five or six notes. But when she sings “I,” Houston sings the word with no frills. There is a reason for this. The “you” is where Houston becomes vulnerable. The “I” presents itself as a pillar of strength.