Traditionally on Oscar weekend we offer an Academy Award-winning song, going all the way back to the very first, "The Continental" in 1934. But not all great movie songs are, formally speaking, movie songs. On the big night exactly a quarter-century ago, two of the five Best Song nominees came from the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard. They were up against a brace of numbers from Disney's Aladdin, plus a sensual ditty I was quite partial to but is now entirely forgotten: "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" from The Mambo Kings. Come Academy night, the Bodyguard songs wound up losing to "A Whole New World", the start of a remarkable triple-Oscar run for Tim Rice - as Tim, Don Black and I discussed briefly on a Mark Steyn Christmas Show a few years back. But, just for the record, the two losing nominees from The Bodyguard were "I Have Nothing" and "Run to You". And if you're thinking, "Hey, wait a minute! I saw Kevin and Whitney, and the only song I remember from that picture was...
And I-I-I Will Always Love Yoo-oo-oo-oo-oo...
Whoa, steady on. There's not one in a million moviegoers who could sing you a bar of "I Have Nothing" or "Run to You". But the song every one can sing from that film didn't qualify. Twenty-five years ago it was just ending an impressive two-month run as Billboard's Number One hit record, but it never got in the door at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion because it was not, in fact, writer for The Bodyguard. Instead, it was written for Porter Wagoner. Indeed, it has the distinction of being the only song written for Porter Wagoner that Saddam Hussein thought sounded as if it had been written for him.
Seriously. Obviously I have my differences with the late Iraqi dictator over torturing political opponents, gassing the Kurds and whatnot, but I had a certain respect for his taste in music. He was said to have quite a collection of Sinatra LPs, mostly from the Capitol era - In the Wee Small Hours and Songs For Swingin' Lovers. And at the end of his life Saddam was certainly swingin'. But that was the dictator after hours, in his wee smalls, with a box of Quality Street and one of his many mistresses. For the public face of his musical tastes, he favored the Bodyguard soundtrack. From The Times of London, and their report on the 2002 Presidential "election" in Iraq:
Party officials have chosen the Whitney Houston song 'I Will Always Love You' as the campaign theme tune. The song accompanies the dawn-to-dusk election broadcasts on the three state-controlled television stations, which feature almost continuous footage of Saddam.
Amazing. All over Baghdad, folks were switching on the radio to find Whitney ululating "I will always love you-oo-oooaahooeauooooeeeuoaaaoooo..." And, all over Baghdad, folks in the next apartment were sighing, "Terrific. Saddam's got those Shi-ites at Number 23 wired up to the cattle prods again. Might as well forget about getting any sleep tonight."
Why Whitney? Why not Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive"? Perhaps Saddam saw The Bodyguard and got a little muddled and figured Kevin Costner was the bigshot and Whitney was the bodyguard and "I Will Always Love You" was the standard theme song that all devoted flunkeys sang to their lord and master. Oddly enough, had it not been for the film Fried Green Tomatoes, Saddam might have found himself campaigning for re-election to "What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?" Filming The Bodyguard 15 years ago, Kevin Costner was looking for a song to bind the movie together: it would be heard first on the jukebox as the eponymous bodyguard dances with the bigtime Hollywood celebrity in his regular bluecollar haunt; then, at the end of the movie, after he's saved her life, the bigtime celeb sings it back to him by way of thanks. "What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?", a hit for Jimmy Ruffin in the Sixties, would probably have done just fine, and Whitney was already working on the song, though without much enthusiasm. But the day before they were supposed to record it, her producer David Foster picked up Billboard and saw that Paul Young had revived "Broken-Hearted" for Fried Green Tomatoes, and it was already on the charts.
What to do? Costner asked them to postpone the session 24 hours and he'd try to find another song. His only thought on the number was that, since the bodyguard's regular bar was in California, it should be pop oldies on the jukebox rather than country'n'western. "Well, if it's oldies," said Maureen Crowe, the music supervisor, "it could also be the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt." So she put together a tape – more Motown, more rock, but also some Ronstadt, including Linda's recording of an old Dolly Parton song:
And I Will Always Love You
I Will Always Love You
Costner and Foster weren't familiar with the song, but it was the one that grabbed them and, when Foster did a demo, it grabbed Whitney, too. And the single from the soundtrack album sold four million copies in nothing flat, and went on to become the first record by a female singer to top the American, British and Australian charts simultaneously, and the first to spend 14 weeks as Billboard's Number One single since Francis Craig's smasheroo "Near You" spent 17 weeks at the top in the fall of 1947.
To be honest, I'd rather hear "Near You". If I had to identify the precise moment when I decided Whitney Houston's record was a curse on humanity, it would be one night at the Coronado, San Diego's landmark hotel, in 1994. I'd been filming something for the BBC out there and the cameraman suggested we have a drink in the joint, and we got distracted by the signs saying L Frank Baum wrote The Wizard Of Oz there and modeled the Emerald City on the hotel, and the electric lighting in the joint had been personally supervised by Thomas Edison itself. None of this was true. It was all rubbish invented by the serial liar who owned the hotel, M Larry Lawrence. Mr Lawrence was subsequently appointed US Ambassador to Switzerland, despite a curriculum vitae – wartime service in the Merchant Marine, torpedoed off the coast of Murmansk, professional football player, vice-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Commission – that itself proved to be one lie after another. Which, as with much of the rest of America's lavish money-no-object bureaucracy, makes you wonder about the point of the FBI background check. When he died, they buried him in Arlington National Cemetery - and then, when his résumé posthumously unraveled, they had to dig him up and ship him back to California.
Anyway, even on that night in 1994, I was finding it hard to take seriously the plaque claiming the Coronado as the birthplace of Oz because it was next to the karaoke bar from which one demented caterwauler after another was bellowing out "I Will Always Love Yoo-yoo-yoo-ulating..." Whitney Houston had managed to transform a blameless country song into the mother of all power ballads. Within a year of its release, the number was every other Lite FM listener's all-time favorite love song. The theory seemed to be that the louder you bellowed it the more romantic it got. In Britain, people began requesting it for funerals, which is marginally less ridiculous than, as many others did, requesting it for weddings – even though it's a song about parting:
If I should stay
I would only be in your way
So I'll go
But I know
I'll think of you ev'ry step of the way...
Not exactly "for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health". But, by that stage, it was just the ultimate all-purpose romantic ballad, and the fact that doing it Whitney-style made it all but impossible for most folks to sing only added to its karaoke klassik status. It's the archetype of the Houston-we-have-a-problem approach: a crazed melismatic pile-up in which the object seems to be to make the one-letter word "I" into a world-record polysyllable: "And I-I-I-I-I-I..."
Maybe that's what Saddam liked: maybe the sound of Whitney overpowering the song appealed to a man who overpowered a country; if you look on the music and the lyrics as the Shia and the Kurds, it's a very Saddamite interpretation of the number. Or perhaps it was the song's ubiquity in karaoke bars that appealed to the Baathist butcher. After all, he was using it, in effect, for a karaoke election campaign, a note-perfect simulacrum of the real thing. In his previous Presidential "election" in 1995, the old monster got 99.89% of the votes. As the 0.11% foolish enough to write in Pat Buchanan had presumably been killed by 2002, you'd have thought Saddam could hardly fail to do better. But who knows? Perhaps there was a Zogby poll with him plummeting to 99.83%. Perhaps Dick Morris had some internal numbers showing Iraqi soccer moms wanted more spending on education and less on anthrax.
So the guy was out there on the stump pressing the flesh - I mean, as opposed to the flesh he pressed with the hot pokers down in the basement. His managers came up with a snappy campaign slogan: "Yes, Yes To Our Beloved Leader, Saddam Hussein". The agency had toyed with "Four More Decades!", "I'm Pro-Saddam And I Vote!", "Guns Don't Kill People. Saddam Kills People", "It's Mourning Again In Halabja!", "Ask Yourself Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Centuries Ago?" and "It's The Dictatorship, Stupid!" On election day, Iraqi voters found a single question on the ballot – "Do you agree that Saddam Hussein should remain President?" - and had to check either "Yes" or "No". In addition, they were obliged to write their names on the ballot, and in case they were tempted to put "John al-Smith" or "Jane bin Doe" they had to fill out the voting slips in the presence of "officials". It wasn't really the kind of election that needs a campaign song.
But it's remarkable how far just going through the motions – the slogan, the theme song – will get you. On CNN, Paula Zahn plugged the network's election coverage thus: "Will Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's future be determined at the ballot box rather than the battlefield? Iraqi citizens are preparing to go to the polls to decide whether Hussein stays in office." That's the spirit, Paula! Let's cross to our Election Update Centre: Initial results indicate that Saddam's leading in 100% of precincts, but let me emphasize it's very early and we could still be in for a wild roller coaster of an election night! Back to you, Paula!
You have to hand it to the old mass murderer. Turning "I Will Always Love You" into a power ballad for a power maniac is an excellent joke. However, it wasn't always such an empty heap of self-regarding bombast. Dolly Parton wrote the song in 1973 when she quit Porter Wagoner's TV show. It had been her first big break and Wagoner was her mentor, but she'd outgrown the gig and it was time to move on. "It took a big part out of his show," said Dolly. "You know, we had our problems with that. But eventually he totally came to terms with that. Well, several years later." I'll say. At one point, Wagoner was suing Dolly for resigning her job.
She was smarter than that. Don't get mad, get writin'. What's better than suing over a problem? Getting a hit song out of it. She and Wagoner sang duets on the show but they were never lovers, merely professional partners. Nonetheless, she very cannily turned their situation into a love song: "I was trying to leave the show, and Porter was having such a hard time with it," she said. "But I knew I had to go, and there was no way that I could discuss it with him and tell him all of my reasons and had that understood. So it came to me just to write what my feelings were in the song... if I should stay, I'd only be in the way, and I'm going. So, you know, I have to get out of here, and I hope life treats you kind, and, you know, I hope you have all you've ever dreamed of. And I'll always love you."
Thank you and good night.
To play Dolly's original after Whitney's bombast is like discovering an orphaned child underneath the rubble. Dolly's take is rueful and reflective; it understands the fragility of love. She composes as Irving Berlin did – dictating tunes to a musical secretary – and no one would claim "I Will Always Love You" is especially interesting musically. But, as with, say, "You Are My Sunshine", if you're true to the simplicity of a song, it can be very affecting. She sings all the verses very conversationally and at the end just speaks the lines, which is hard to pull off, though she does:
I hope life treats you kind
And I hope you have all you've dreamed of...
By contrast, Whitney's demolition is bloated and bullying. No wonder Saddam liked it. Yes, yes, an important qualification: Whitney's demolition sounds bloated and bullying, coarse and unfelt ...to my ears, if apparently to no one else's around the planet a quarter-century ago. But, with hindsight, I think it's not unfair to conclude that Dolly understood love better than Whitney. The Bodyguard was supposed to mark the next phase of a superstar's superstardom. It didn't quite work out like that. Whitney Houston died before her time, and more to the point, from the perspective of her mentor, Clive Davis, before his time — the glittering Saturday-night pre–Grammy Awards bash thrown by the music mogul that's become an annual triple-A-list event for what's left of the pop biz. Six Grammy seasons ago, the fallen diva apparently drowned in her bath on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton a couple of hours before guests were due to arrive at the hotel for Mr. Davis's party. What to do?
It was decided to proceed. Because of the circumstances of Miss Houston's demise, the LAPD declined to remove her body, leaving it in situ and sealing the death scene with yellow tape. And so, after a moment of silence, Britney Spears and Quincy Jones and Kim Kardashian and Dr. Dre ate and drank and sang and rocked out "with Whitney Houston tragically passed away just a few floors above," as Media Bistro tactfully put it. Downstairs, the celebrities tragically partied, a difficult balancing act. Diana Ross and Berry Gordy capered for the cameras, and then remembered they weren't meant to be having that good a time. The Los Angeles County coroner arrived to examine the body as Elvis Costello and the Kinks' Ray Davies took to the stage for a rockin' good set. Toward the end of the party, the corpse was removed — discreetly, one trusts, as it would have been unfortunate if the coroner's men had crossed the lobby with the body bag while Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige were giving pre-Grammy interviews to Entertainment Tonight.
"It's appropriate," the producer Jimmy Jam said. "The show must go on. I think Whitney would have wanted that to happen." Well, she was upstairs dead on the bathroom floor, so we'll never know. But the show-must-go-on saw gave the game away: Officially, this wasn't a show but a party. Except that, like many such "parties" in Beverly Hills, it was a corporate event masquerading as a social occasion. Strictly business, like a mob wedding with a body in the trunk. If anyone at the news networks thought the scene macabre, he preferred not to say. CNN was particularly respectful to the showbiz muscle, perhaps because their former comrade Larry King had made the cut and one day they might, too — although Larry was sufficiently old-showbiz to tell reporters the whole thing should have been canceled.
I met Miss Houston once, over 20 years ago, just for seven minutes or so. I was a dork, and she was beautiful, if even then somewhat overwrought. I wouldn't mention it, except that Fox News was reduced to interviewing a "showbiz blogger" or some such whose claim to authority was that he'd once been in an elevator with Whitney. I make no claim to intimacy, but I'm mindful that underneath even the most drug-rotted caricature of celebrity is someone real. My friend Don Black, who wrote Michael Jackson's first solo No. 1 hit, "Ben," remembers "Wacko Jacko" as a shy boy who used to come over and play snooker with his sons and do charming amateur paintings with his wife Shirley.
And so it was with Whitney Houston. Before she was the fourth-floor ghost at Clive Davis's feast, she was the daughter of a gospel singer who grew up singing in church. Had she remained a church singer, she would be alive today. I can't remember whether they sang "I Will Always Love You" at the Beverly Hilton that night, but, for Whitney as for Saddam, it was the big kiss-off.
No matter how heartfelt the song was to Dolly, Porter Wagoner understood that at least. If they'd had a sense of humor, the Iraqi government would have played it at the execution. It's what connects Saddam to Porter to Houston – a recognition by the other party that, whether you're a nation or a TV show's gal singer or an A-list Hollywood gala, there are times when you have to move on:
That is all I'm taking with me
Please don't cry
We both know I'm not what you need...
~Many of Steyn's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected together in his book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the special promo code at checkout to enjoy the special Steyn Club member discount.
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