Babyface turns 30 this year. Sure, the Man Who Would Be Babyface — Kenneth Edmonds — was born in 1959, but the singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around hit maker extraordinaire began taking baby steps up the Billboard charts the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated every chart. Join Robert Cass, Jeff Giles, and Mike Heyliger as they take a look back at the first three decades of Babyface’s career, with various detours along the stream of consciousness.
“Queen of the Night” by Whitney Houston [Amazon / iTunes]
(written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Whitney Houston, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, and Daryl Simmons; produced by Edmonds and Reid; from the soundtrack album of The Bodyguard, 1992)
Mike: Definitely not my favorite Whitney song. Sounds like Babyface and L.A. Reid were going for an En Vogue “Free Your Mind” kind of feel here, but it doesn’t really work.
Robert: Good point! I didn’t make that connection until now. Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, who never really rivaled Babyface and L.A. Reid or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in terms of chart success but still had a good streak going in the late ’80s and early ’90s with En Vogue, Alexander O’Neal, and Tony! Toni! Toné!, wrote “Free Your Mind,” which Wikipedia says was recorded in December 1991. It also says that “Queen of the Night” was recorded in ’91, and The Bodyguard, according to IMDB, began filming in November of that year, so the song had to have been completed by the time Houston lip-synched to it on camera, right? The portions of the music video that show her performing in a club are taken from the movie, except it’s not “her” — it’s Rachel Marron, the famous singer Houston plays in the movie. But in the rest of the video it is her. Got it? Very “meta,” guys. Try to keep up.
I’m more familiar with the dance-oriented CJ Mackintosh mix of “Queen of the Night” than the original version, but I like the “rock” aspects of the latter more than I ever did in similar songs by similar artists, e.g., Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” and Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” (produced by Janet and Jellybean Johnson, not Jam & Lewis, so you can’t really say I’m talking about Jam & Lewis here, Jeff, because I’m not, even though I do seem to keep repeating the names of Jam & Lewis).
Mike: “Black Cat” is my least favorite Janet Jackson single ever. And yes, that remix of “Queen of the Night” got significantly more airplay than the original mix.
Robert: Yet another case of an early-’90s R&B song receiving a remix that, in my opinion, improves on the original while actually drawing out its best R&B elements. Nothing wrong with a solid second draft.
From what I can tell, “Queen of the Night” was only released as a promotional 12-inch here in the States, presumably for the sake of club DJs, with the original version relegated to side two; it was released as a single in Europe, but the original is nowhere to be found on most of the CD “maxi-single” editions. I heard the Mackintosh mix for the first time just four years ago, when I checked out Houston’s The Greatest Hits from the library. It’s a head-scratching collection that replaces all of the original versions of her up-tempo numbers, including the ‘Face-and-L.A.-produced “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (1990), with various remixes, but at least “Queen of the Night” got a superior one.
Speaking of Janet Jackson, Wikipedia claims that she was considered for the role of Rachel prior to Houston being cast, as were Olivia Newton-John, Pat Benatar, Madonna, Joan Jett, Deborah Harry, Kim Carnes, Dolly Parton, and Terri Nunn of Berlin. Parton, of course, wrote and performed the original version of “I Will Always Love You” in 1974, but Houston’s terrific cover (produced by Terje Fjelde, right?) is probably one of the main reasons why The Bodyguard‘s soundtrack album has sold 45 million copies since 1992 and remains the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
Mike: For some reason I thought Diana Ross was the original choice for Rachel, and that the script had been floating around for years before it got turned into a movie. Or maybe that was Dreamgirls (2006). All these movies confuse me.
Robert: You are correct, sir! Lawrence Kasdan wrote The Bodyguard‘s script in the mid-’70s, several years before receiving his first screenwriting credit on an independent film called The Empire Strikes Back, as a vehicle for Steve McQueen, and after two years and 67 rejections, Warner Bros. bought it in 1977. The studio couldn’t get the actor to commit, but Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross were attached at one point, and after 14 years in development hell The Bodyguard finally went into production thanks to Kevin Costner’s perseverance, not to mention his rise to stardom in the late ’80s after having appeared in The Big Chill (1983) and Silverado (1985), Kasdan’s second and third films as a director. All of Costner’s scenes in the former were left on the cutting-room floor, but that’s his faceless body you see in the casket at the beginning of the movie.
Mike: Amazing what my brain hangs on to.
Jeff: Holy shit, I’d forgotten ever hearing “Queen of the Night.” Dig that new-jack beat! Also: Hi, massive throngs of well-dressed white people in the audience! EVERYONE LOVES WHITNEY.
Doesn’t mean I have to love this song, though. I mean, it’s fine for what it is. It’s just that what it is is a third-generation Xerox of the “Free Your Mind”/”Black Cat” variety of cross-platform R&B that the genre’s biggest acts seemed to be required to dabble in during the early ’90s. And given how loudly we’ve all pined for the days of racially ambiguous R&B in this series, that should be a good thing — if only the songs weren’t so frequently self-conscious about incorporating rock elements. There’s nothing organic about the production here, and the song itself is pretty rote. (And Mike, I’m with you re: “Black Cat.” It’s always made me leap for the dial.)
Jeff: In the movie Rachel’s performance of “Queen of the Night” is cut short when her fans pull her offstage against her will. So what are you trying to say, Jeff? That only black people can incite random acts of nonconsensual crowd-surfing? Free your mind, sir.
Have you guys heard of Miguel? Probably so, but like I said last week, my knowledge of the current R&B scene is nothing to brag about, so I was in the dark until he showed up as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago. He seems to be the real deal in terms of playing with a live band and not being afraid to blend genres. I’m not sure how well he’s going over with R&B audiences, though.
Mike: Miguel is awesome. I didn’t discover him until his most recent album, Kaleidoscope Dream (2012), but then I went back and bought his first album, All I Want Is You (2010). He’s an immense talent. His live performances are more rock oriented than his albums, but I like the fact that he’s not the same old thing in contemporary R&B. Seems like we’re coming up on a point in time when genre blending will be a bit more accepted.
Robert: On that note, if The Bodyguard was being offered to Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross in the late ’70s or early ’80s, why was Hollywood still so afraid of romantic race blending by the early ’90s? “Steamy scenes were filmed and have been shown on TV, but Warner Bros. has flip-flopped on how they’ll be used,” according to the “News & Notes” section of Entertainment Weekly‘s May 22, 1992, issue, which I found while getting ready to move to a new apartment. “A Warner spokesman insists the salt-and-pepper romance isn’t the crux of the film. ‘It’s not Jungle Fever,’ he stresses, adding that filmmakers are ‘a long way off from deciding’ on a final cut….” (The movie was released six months later.)
First off, if Warner Bros. is serious about remaking The Bodyguard — it bought a pitch two years ago, and Kasdan is supposedly on board as one of the producers while he writes one of the new Star Wars spin-off movies for Disney — why not let Spike Lee direct it? After all, his first real “popcorn” movie, Inside Man, became his biggest box office hit in 2006. Jennifer Hudson was rumored as a candidate for Houston’s role two years ago, and it’s not hard to see Ryan Gosling in Costner’s role, but if Lee wanted to work with Denzel Washington again after Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man, he could reverse the racial polarity and cast an age-appropriate white singer as Rachel Marron. Susan Boyle, are your ears burning?
Mike: Why would anyone want to remake that movie? Geez, is Hollywood completely bereft of ideas?
Robert: The screenwriters, Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer, said in an interview that websites like TMZ have changed the landscape, not to mention the frequency, of celebrity news coverage over the past two decades, and that with social media the rules have changed as to how celebrities cover themselves. That sounds like a good-enough reason for a remake to me, and besides, I remember laughing a lot when I saw the original movie in the theater, especially during the climactic sequence set at the Academy Awards. The bad news is, The Bodyguard isn’t a comedy. The good news is, that leaves plenty of room for improvement in the remake.
Mike: I suppose that’s as good a reason as any.
Interracial romance was still a big, big hot-button issue in ’92. Even a few years later I remember reading an article about some movie Denzel Washington did with Julia Roberts, where he essentially said he wouldn’t do a love scene with her because it would piss off his entire fan base.
Jeff: The Pelican Brief (1993)! He’s still taking shit for that, to the extent that his interracial smooching in Flight made headlines.
Mike: A lot of black folks — specifically, black women — view interracial dating as a kind of betrayal.
Jeff: I understand completely. That’s how I view shitty, mechanized R&B.
Mike: Full circle, ladies and gentlemen.
Robert: Did Washington have any love scenes with Sarita Choudhury in Mississippi Masala (1992)? If so, was that movie “indie” enough that the majority of his black-female fan base didn’t see it, or were those viewers okay with him getting it on with an Indian woman? Maybe it’s not a black-and-white thing, but rather a shades-of-brown thing.
I hadn’t heard about the Flight mini-controversy, but in Will Harris‘s interview with Kelly Lynch last year for the Onion AV Club, she said that once the futuristic action movie Virtuosity (1995) went into production — think Demolition Man (1993) with its own racial polarity reversed — Washington took charge of rewriting the script and jettisoned their characters’ romance.
“I said, ‘Denzel, what is it? Why don’t you believe that the man you’re playing [could] be attracted to me?’ I mean, it wasn’t a cheesy love story. It was actually really well written and moving. And he said, ‘You know what, Kelly? I hate to say it, but, you know, white men bring women to movies, and they don’t want to watch a black man with their woman.’ I was like, ‘What? No. Really?’ He said, ‘No, I’m sorry, but that’s truly what it is. That’s what the audience is.’ I’m like, ‘But how about The Bodyguard? That was a huge hit movie.’ ‘Well, that’s different. That’s a white man. It’s different.’ I said, ‘So that’s your main motivating factor on this?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So the love story wasn’t a love story anymore.”
Washington does have a point, and ten years after Virtuosity I remember Will Smith saying in an interview that he’d pushed to have a black love interest in Hitch, but Sony balked, so Eva Mendes became their compromise. In 2005 Will Smith was arguably the biggest movie star in the world, so if Sony thought he couldn’t put enough butts in seats with Gabrielle Union on his arm, that’s pretty sad, but I do wonder if these decisions are often made out of fear — not of interracial romance, but of low box office receipts, as if the studios have statistically concluded, whether through focus groups or accounting practices or algorithms, that a white-male movie star paired with a black love interest can bring in more money over the long haul than a black-male movie star and similar love interest.
Mike: Well, a black-male movie star with a black love interest ultimately becomes a “black movie,” and thus white folks are immediately disinterested.
Robert: And black movies, traditionally, don’t do as well at the box office as white movies.
But then there’s Django Unchained. But you could say that the real love story in that movie is between Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), not Django and his wife, Hildie (Kerry Washington). Will Smith was offered the role of Django by writer-director Quentin Tarantino before it went to Foxx, and recently he said that he turned down the role not because of the violence or the many times the word “nigger” is used by white characters, but because Django isn’t the one who determines the fate of one of the movie’s main villains. That made me wonder: How much does Will Smith believe his own hype?
(As the gay protagonist of 1993’s underrated Six Degrees of Separation, his first lead role in a film, Smith was supposed to kiss Anthony Michael Hall in a scene but ultimately forced director Fred Schepisi to shoot the kiss in a way that obscured his face. At the time Smith was the star of the squeaky-clean sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which may be why he turned to Denzel Washington for advice and was reportedly told, “Don’t be kissing no man.” Washington later denied having said it, but within the larger context of a conversation between an up-and-coming black movie star and an already established one, it seems more to me like a matter of career and image control than garden-variety homophobia.)
Then again, Schultz gets the best lines, making Django seem like a supporting character at times, and after the first hour, hour and a half I got a little bored, then frustrated, then increasingly angry, which is how I’ve felt in general about all of Tarantino’s movies since Jackie Brown, aside from maybe Kill Bill, Vol. 2. I really think he needs his next few movies to bomb, and the Weinstein brothers to send him packing, so that he’ll be forced into directing a script he didn’t write for a studio that contractually obligates him to deliver a 100-minute film.
Jeff: I think it might be more accurate to say white folks are immediately disinterested in the majority of the “black movies” the studio system sees fit to release. That’s partly because they’re “black movies,” but don’t discount the fact that a lot of them pander to really broad stereotypes (hello, Tyler Perry).
Mike: But it doesn’t stop them from going to Adam Sandler movies??
Jeff: I can’t explain that. No one can. Does this mean that our vision for a postracial future for comedy includes a Tyler Perry-Adam Sandler film?
Mike: Then we finally might be able to see Chris Rock and Janet Jackson as an on-screen couple.
Jeff: I’m shuddering inside: “Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler’s Madea Goes to Happy Gilmore.”
Robert: Sandler already put on a dress for Jack and Jill (2011). Can’t fight fate, y’all.
Mike: I actually enjoyed Django quite a bit, despite its length. The crux of the story wasn’t really the relationship between Django and Broomhilda, at least not the way I saw it.
Robert: I agree — it was more of a buddy movie than a love story, but Django’s search for Hildie provided the “inciting incident,” you could say. I really liked the first hour or so, and I kept thinking, “Oh, this won’t be like Inglourious Basterds or Death Proof,” which even Tarantino has admitted is bad, but then it kept going and going and going. I’m really surprised it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Kevin Costner was originally supposed to play a sadistic mandingo trainer in the movie but dropped out due to his commitment to the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries, but that character never made it into the movie anyway, supposedly because Tarantino’s screenplay was in various states of disarray throughout production. The main reason the director plays an Australian miner near the end of the movie, as far as I can tell, is because Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace), who was cast in the role, had to drop out to film another movie when production on Django fell behind schedule by several weeks.
Jeff: White people turned out for stuff like Waiting to Exhale (1995) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), and I think Gimme the Loot is going to have a healthy life in limited/video-on-demand release this year. I just think stuff like Are We There Yet? (2005) turns people off on a number of levels, not all of them racial.
Robert: Well, Stella made $37 million, but on a budget of $20 million, which isn’t great, and although Waiting to Exhale was considered a hit with $67 million in receipts, the similarly themed First Wives Club made about $40 million more the following year.
But if black filmmakers want to demand the same rights as white filmmakers when it comes to churning out pandering kiddie comedies, so be it! Of course, the semi-ugly truth is that Are We There Yet? was directed by Brian Levant (Problem Child 2, Beethoven, The Flintstones), while one of Jamie Foxx’s first movies, the sex comedy Booty Call (1997), was directed by Jeff Pollack, one of the executive producers of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Both are white.
Jeff: For a tangent, this is getting pretty interesting. I mean, you guys are obviously right that the issue is complicated, and it’s just as obvious that there’s a painful dearth of black filmmakers, so it’s probably true that “black movies” are often just a different flavor of the same old Hollywood sausage. I guess what I was getting at is that there aren’t very many films targeted at the black audience — the studios release, what, two a year? — and a lot of the ones that do see release tend to get pretty bad reviews. Of course, most movies in general aren’t critical winners, but when you’re drawing from a smaller sample pool it’s easier to make generalizations.
I do think, though, that a lot of filmgoers just want to be entertained, and that there’s a fundamental disconnect between the way Hollywood perceives the process of marketing “black movies” and the way people approach films. Back to Gimme the Loot for a second: that’s a well-written, powerfully acted story that just happens to be about people who are black, and it’s been earning raves. On the other hand, it’s also a microbudgeted indie that most people will never hear about, while Think Like a Man Too probably has a $20 million budget.
Robert: I think you’re absolutely right that people just want to be entertained. I just have a feeling that How Stella Got Her Groove Back has had much more of an afterlife on video and cable. And I haven’t seen Are We There Yet? or Booty Call — or Gimme the Loot, for that matter — so I can’t really say anything about them, good or bad. But just as the studios now make $200 million superhero and based-on-the-best-selling-line-of-Hasbro-action-figures movies with $100 million marketing campaigns that are designed to make as much money as possible on opening weekend since the home-video market is a fraction of what it was just six years ago, they also seem to make paint-by-numbers comedies and melodramas for black audiences, e.g., the ones from Tyler Perry’s assembly line, that decrease the odds of a VHS sleeper like Stella being greenlit if it were pitched today.
Jeff: So, in a nutshell Hollywood treats filmgoers of all ethnicities like children, just in different ways, and white people get most of the toys.
I don’t want to see a “black” movie any more than I want to see a “white” one. I just want to watch films that make me feel something. Same goes for music, and I’m assuming you guys feel the same way. Are we exceptions?
Mike: I would say yes. I don’t think it’s conscious on the part of most people, though. I just think it’s a matter of perceived relatability.
Robert: No, I don’t think we’re exceptions, but I will say that I’m perfectly happy to stay home and see any kind of movie because everybody seems to talk in movie theaters. Going to the movies isn’t cheap in the first place, so why bother?
Mike: I agree with you there. Fuck a movie theater. Twelve dollars, plus another ten in stale popcorn and sugar water, when I can watch movies for free on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or on-demand cable and drink shitty beer? I’ll take option B.
I think the entertainment industry has a big problem marketing media that’s overwhelmingly “black” to a mass, i.e., white, audience. It’s definitely the case in film, largely the case on TV — let’s say The Cosby Show was an aberration — and is still even a problem in music, where there’s a large group of R&B artists who are completely incapable of crossing over because they’re not “pop” enough to appeal to a young white audience yet not obscure enough to appeal to a more niche, older, white audience.
Robert: Who are you thinking of in particular?
Mike: Fantasia. I’m working on a review of her new album, and I just find it odd that her albums sell half a mil each — this new one’s on pace to do 90,000-plus in its first week — but the general populace either thinks of her as one of American Idol‘s flop contestants or not at all. There’s a long list of R&B artists whose influence seems minuscule to the average pop or rock fan but who sell solidly to an audience of (mostly) black fans every time they come out with a new album.
Jeff: Hence Unsung.
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.