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If you were alive in the 1980s it was impossible to miss out on the once in a lifetime talent that was Whitney Houston. While she came from solid singer stalk in the form of backup songstress Cissy Houston, no one was really prepared for how big her breakthrough as an artist was going to be. To this day she still holds records like having seven consecutive #1 songs (from her first two albums). She was loved by black and white music fans alike and that crossover appeal catapulted her to superstardom instantaneously.
Director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) opens his documentary on the legendary and tragic life of Whitney Houston with audio from Whitney herself: “I’m always running this giant…but he never gets me,” she says. Right from there “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” kicks in and even though we know we’re in for a somber affair we’re briefly lifted with the music. It’s interspersed with moments from the 1980s (largely represented by white faces, a theme that pops up here) but Macdonald doesn’t let that nostalgia last too long as he strains and cracks the music and intercuts images and video of violence and terror from the 1960s to the late 1980s – another recurring motif in the film.
This is the second doc on Whitney Houston in less than a year; last fall Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? leaned in on the salacious elements of this very classic Hollywood rise and fall story. Macdonald’s film was made with the support of the Whitney Houston Estate and includes interviews with family and friends – even mother Cissy and ex-husband Bobby Brown (if ever so brief, more on that later). The result is a bit more carefully curated and spends more than half of its running time on the more positive elements of her rise before digging into the darker vortex of her eventual demise.
Examining the life and creation of Whitney Houston starts with her mother Cissy. As a young girl, Whitney was often bullied for being light-skinned so Cissy sent her to private school. Cissy, one of the most prolific backup singers in music history (having worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley) tried to have a solo career as a lead artist that didn’t pan out, paving the way for her to be a strict stage mom and steer young Whitney’s career. “Three things make a singer,” she says, sitting on a pew in their old neighborhood church where Whitney started singing. “Abs, chest, and head – heart, mind, and guts. Whitney had that.” From here though, Cissy disappears from the film, sadly only giving us this brief moment.
Cissy’s brief comments are a soliloquy compared to Bobby Brown who offers zero information on, well, anything. He refuses to talk about their drug use or her death. Whitney and Bobby were living a real-life A Star Is Born and he probably has more insight into that period of her life than anyone (even her brothers, who got her into drugs at 16). But, true to A Star Is Born fashion, Brown’s bitterness about playing second fiddle (“he became a +1, says a family friend), his jealousy has turned to pettiness over the years. In 1992 came the huge success of her first film The Bodyguard, with Kevin Costner, and the song “I Will Always Love You,” which became her most successful single ever, spending 14 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning two Grammys. Not only was that more than Brown could take, as Houston embarked on the tour for the film’s soundtrack she started showing signs of deteriorating. Missing rehearsals, canceling shows and nonstop rumors of drug use to which Brown snaps, “Drugs have nothing to do with her life.”
The conversation about Robyn Crawford, Huston’s most trusted confidant and by all accounts Houston’s lover since the age of 18 and her lifelong love, is handled briefly and swiftly. Unlike Broomfield’s doc, which explores this as his film’s main subject, family members either have hate for her (brother Gary says “she was nothing, an opportunist,” calling her “evil, wicked.” Friends are more charitable to Crawford and explain her importance on being the only person who could get Houston out of bed and able to perform. But that is cut short, jumping to Houston and Brown’s marriage, Brown’s hatred and jealousy of Crawford and Crawford sending an ‘it’s either him or me’ ultimatum, to which Houston responds with ‘then I accept your resignation.’ This proves to be just one of many of Houston’s unfortunate choices as Brown devolves into a violent adulterer involved in multiple affairs, arrests and accusations of sexual harassment that eventually led to Houston filing for divorce.
If Macdonald’s film has one thing on Broomfield’s it’s the bombshell revelation that during the period when Cissy would be away on tour and Whitney and her brothers Michael and Gary were shuttled around from family to family for a place to stay, that Whitney (and her brother Gary) were molested as children. This is something that’s never been spoken about, or even hinted about, as a possible catalyst for the series of bad choices Houston made over the span of her 30+ year career. Most shocking of all is that both Gary and her aunt Mary actually reveal who it was: Dee Dee Warwick, Whitney’s own cousin and sister to Dionne Warwick. Warwick died of a drug overdose four years before Whitney did, in 2008. Mary goes on to theorize that this incident is likely what kept Whitney from being able to truly embrace her sexuality and that marrying a man and having children would simply gloss over those secrets. But, as one interviewee says early in the film, “When you don’t deal with secrets, they never go away.” Indeed they don’t and in the case of Houston, it was probably the very thing that made her tragic end almost inevitable.