Whitney Houston Biopic Crystallizes; Stella Meghie Directing, Anthony McCarten Writing Script For Houston Estate, Primary Wave & Clive Davis
By Mike Fleming, Jr.
EXCLUSIVE: A feature film on the life of iconic songstress Whitney Houston is fast forming. The Whitney Houston Estate, Primary Wave and Grammy-winning music producer Clive Davis have teamed up for I Wanna Dance With Somebody. They are negotiating with The Photograph helmer Stella Meghie to direct.
Scripting and producing is Anthony McCarten, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter who wrote the biographical films The Two Popes, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody, and The Theory Of Everything. On those films, Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), and Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawkins) won lead actor Oscars three years straight, and Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins were just both nominated for Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, respectively. Those films earned him four Oscar and two BAFTA noms for McCarten, who has been scripting the Bee Gees film for Paramount, GK, Sister and Amblin, and also wrote the book for an upcoming Broadway musical on the life of singer/songwriter Neil Diamond. Focusing on a female icon will be a new one for him.
The Whitney Houston film will be produced by Pat Houston on behalf of the Houston Estate, Davis, Larry Mestel on behalf of Primary Wave Music, Denis O’Sullivan, and McCarten through his Muse of Fire Productions banner. Primary Wave Music is a partner of the Whitney Houston estate. The film will benefit from the use of Houston’s many hit songs.
McCarten’s incredible biopic track record helped him win the support of the Houston family, after the late Houston’s mentor Davis reached out to McCarten last April. McCarten self-financed a life-rights option and is writing the script on spec. Unclear when the project will be set with a distributor.
The big question is, who can possibly play Houston?
We all know about her tragic death in 2012. But if, even now, you listen to the soaring finish of The Bodyguard‘s signature tune I Will Always Love You, or her Super Bowl rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, and the hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand up, it’s because you don’t have hair on the back of your neck. The producers will lean into that part of the story, but won’t ignore her sad ending, much the way that McCarten handled the sensitivity around Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The producers describe their vision of the film as a “joyous, emotional and heart-breaking celebration of the life and music of the greatest female R&B pop vocalist of all time, tracking her journey from obscurity to musical superstardom. While being very frank about the price that super-stardom exacted, it will be both the rich and complex saga of the search for the perfect marriage between song and singer and audience, and at the same time the moving tale of a simple Jersey girl trying to find her way back home.”
Houston is the most awarded female music artist of all time, selling more than 200 million records worldwide. With her first studio album in 1985 and for more than 25 years that followed, her music became the soundtrack for multiple generations. Her hit songs included Saving All My Love for You, How Will I Know, Greatest Love of All, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Didn’t We Almost Have it All, So Emotional, Where Do Broken Hearts Go, I’m Your Baby Tonight and Million Dollar Bill, among many others. The six songs Houston recorded for her 1992 screen turn with Kevin Costner propelled The Bodyguard soundtrack to win multiple Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, and a Record of the Year award for the Dolly Parton-penned singleI Will Always Love You. The album remains the best-selling soundtrack album in history and the film went on to earn $411 Million at the worldwide box office. She later did soundtracks for other motion pictures, including Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, the latter which went on to become the best-selling gospel album in history.
In her all-too-brief life, Houston won six Grammy Awards, 16 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards and two Emmy Awards, among many others. She was inducted earlier this year into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Davis, who discovered Houston in 1983 when she was a doe-eyed 19 year old, said: “From all my personal and professional experience with Whitney from her late teenage years to her tragic premature death, I know the full Whitney Houston story has not yet been told. I am so glad that Anthony McCarten has committed to a no holds barred, musically rich screenplay that finally reveals the whole Whitney whose vocal genius deeply affected the world while she fiercely battled the demons that were to be her undoing”.
Said Pat Houston, on behalf of the Estate: “The Estate of Whitney Houston is more than elated to be involved with a group of people that are as passionate about Whitney’s life story as we are. Whitney’s legacy deserves only the best that can be given. I stand with the hearts of these partners being the chosen ones to produce a film that’s uplifting and inspiring to all that loved her, giving you a reason to continue to celebrate The Voice that we all fell in love with and will cherish forever!”
Said Mestel: “Whitney Houston was the voice of a generation and who better to tell her story then than Pat Houston, Clive Davis and the Oscar-nominated and award-winning Anthony McCarten. Anthony is a proven storyteller and we are honored to have the most “in demand” screen writer in the business as our partner on this important project.”
Adds McCarten: “We are incredibly lucky to have the support and input of many of the key people who knew Whitney the best and who were there at the time, in the making of this film. I am working closely with all of them, to authentically tell the extraordinary story of a peerless talent, taken from us too soon. Recreating for the big screen those unforgettable performances, those beloved songs, and that incredible journey, will be an enormous responsibility, undertaking, privilege and delight for myself and for our entire team.”
Meghie, whose four films have gotten her nominated for an Independent Spirit, NAACP and Toronto Film Fest awards, is a huge fan of Houston and chased this job hard. I expect distributors to do the same.
McCarten is repped by David Fox at Myman Greenspan Fox. Meghie is CAA and Del Shaw Moonves.
This article originally published on April 22, 2020 in Deadline.