Film & Television

“Whitney’: Insights Into Singer’s Too-Short Life
May Be Too Revealing

On February 11, 2012, we were up in Vermont, skiing with another family. Between us, we had three teenagers. One of our friends’ boys booted up his laptop so we could watch some videos. “Whitney Houston died,” he announced matter-of-factly as his browser came up. I was immediately struck by two things: that the news wasn’t really a surprise — Houston’s downward spiral had been playing out in public for years — and how little our kids were affected by it. After all, Houston had reached her record-breaking stardom more than a decade before they were born.

The Grammy Awards were the next night, and with virtually no time to prepare, they pulled together a tribute that was perfect in its simplicity. LL Cool J introduced it by announcing that there had been “a death in the family.” Then, accompanied only by a piano, Jennifer Hudson (whose meteoric rise was reminiscent of Houston’s 25 years earlier) came out and did a soulful version of Houston’s most famous and most heartbreaking hit, “I Will Always Love You.” She seemed to choke up a little but made it through. For a few minutes, she brought us back to that beautiful young girl with the glorious voice. And we could forget the troubled middle-aged woman she became.

Multiple movies and biopics have already been made about Houston. The latest — and, hopefully, the last — has just opened in theaters. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Oscar-winner for One Day in September), Whitney is the first film produced with the cooperation of Houston’s estate. Patricia Houston, the star’s former sister-in-law, is one of the producers, and Macdonald had unprecedented access to family members, friends, and professional colleagues. The result is a more intimate look at the singer’s short life, a life that once seemed like a dream come true but devolved into tabloid fodder.

For many, sadly, the sordid details of her death overshadowed her earlier accomplishments. Macdonald sets the record straight by covering her many and significant accomplishments. She broke more records than any other female singer. She sold more than 200 million albums. She had seven consecutive number-one hits. She starred in blockbuster movies, and thrilled the nation with what is often considered to be the best-ever rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl.

Macdonald covers Houston’s childhood in Newark, set against the city’s race riots of 1967. Her mother, Cissy, was a Grammy-winning gospel singer, who toured often as backup for cousin Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin. Her father was a (possibly corrupt) civil servant and theatrical manager. The family eventually moved to the more upscale East Orange, where they had a cat and a pool, and Whitney was sent to an all-girls’ Catholic school. From her youth, “Nippy’s” miraculous voice was recognized and nurtured. Cissy was determined that her daughter would stay out of trouble until she was ready to launch her career. In Whitney, one relative describes the star’s childhood as “idyllic.” But, in truth, the girl was bullied for being too light-skinned, and she was introduced to drugs by her brother on her 16th birthday.

Much of Macdonald’s film is set up as a study in contrasts. His interview subjects are candid but relate disparate stories. It’s easy to understand how Houston reached the height of her career. The unspoken mystery is how she fell so far so fast. Ex-husband Bobby Brown, whom many fans — and family — blame for Houston’s eventual self-destruction, refused to speak with the director about her drug use. In his interview segments, he comes across much as he did during their tempestuous marriage: arrogant, defensive, and resentful of her fame.

Fame arrived early for Houston. After a brief modelling stint and signing with Arista Records, she appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, performing “Home” from the musical The Wiz. She was just 19 years old and started the song softly, sweetly teasing the audience before building up and revealing that show-stopping voice. Griffin famously prophesied, “It will take an act of Congress to keep this woman from becoming a mega-star.” Her first album, Whitney Houston, was released in 1985.

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  • Fbfanatic July 18, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you for the comprehensive review. I don’t agree with your characterization of how the main “reveal” was handled in the film. I’ve seen the film multiple times and read/listened to virtually every interview given by KM. Early on he instinctively felt she might have had some kind of trauma from her childhood due to the way she carried herself. Evidently, he picked up on something based upon his many years making docs. However, he was somewhat worried halfway through the production because she was incredible difficult to understand.

    He literally went through thousands of hours of interviews, backstage stuff, home movies etc. and finally came upon a English radio interview in which the host asked her what made her angry. She immediately and forcefully said “child abuse.” The host questioned her further, and a light went off in KM’s head. It wasn’t until two weeks before they would’ve made the final cut that KM was able to get confirmation that her brother was molested as a child, and his wife confirmed she had heard Whitney was also molested. Then a very close assistant to Whitney admitted on camera that Whitney herself told of abuse by the woman named in the film. What was he to do with this information? His goal was clearly to figure out why she self destructed, and one couldn’t possibly leave out this serious childhood trauma.

    Lastly, I hope another “music” doc is made about her because Whitney’s brilliance and artistry has never been fully explored and explained. There is so much great live stuff that could be included in addition to music experts, singers being used to describe why she was one of the greatest voices (regardless of musical genres) we’ve ever heard.