Film & Television

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

Highlights of her early career, along with backstage video (typically of the singer looking exhausted) are intercut with comments from Houston’s entourage. Once she was a success, everyone in her family was on her payroll. “She was a bit of an ATM for people,” an associate remembers. Most disturbing was her father, who became her manager and eventually sued her for $100 million. She was adored by legions of fans, but criticized for sounding “too white.” Al Sharpton encouraged a boycott of Whitney Houston. (Ironically, he was one of many who praised and eulogized her after her death.) In 1988 and 1989, she was booed by the crowd at the Soul Train Music Awards. She recalled the experience on The Arsenio Hall Show:

“They boo me at the Soul Train Awards … I think that I’ve got a lot of flak about I sing too white … I do sing the way God intended for me to sing and I’m using what he gave me and I’m using it to the best of my ability.”

Houston’s faith and her genuine belief that her voice was a gift from God to be appreciated are common themes in Whitney. However, that doesn’t stop her from throwing shade at Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. “She’s singing off-key on that record, Mama,” she insists.

A turning point for Houston was in 1992, a year after her triumphant Super Bowl performance, when she married Bobby Brown. The following year, Houston gave birth to Bobbi Kristina. Friends and family speculate that the unlikely marriage (Houston was a pop princess; Brown had a reputation as a bad boy), which endured fourteen years of infidelity, domestic abuse, and drug use, was Houston’s attempt to prove that she could have a normal family life. Rumors of a lesbian relationship with her best friend, roommate, and protector Robyn Crawford were rampant then and confirmed by some in the new film: “Her sexuality was fluid.” Whether that relationship was sexual or not, Brown was threatened by Crawford and forced the two apart. Complete control was clearly his motivation, but he was unable to exert it once The Bodyguard was released.

Houston’s first movie earned lukewarm reviews but was an immediate hit with audiences. In Whitney, costar Kevin Costner explains how game-changing it was to have the ill-fated romance between a white hero and a black heroine treated exactly the way it would be if both protagonists were white. The movie’s signature song, a cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. Houston sang it in honor of Nelson Mandela at the historic “Concert for a New South Africa.”

For a time, Houston tried to downplay her fame in deference to Brown’s ego. “He wanted to be in the forefront, and eventually she stepped down to lift him up.” Being “Mrs. Brown” became more important than being “Whitney Houston.” By the time they divorced, Houston had already participated in her disastrous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer. “Crack is whack,” she insisted, sparking a number of cruel jokes and comedy routines. Multiple stints in rehab proved fruitless. and a bankrupt Houston set out on an ill-advised “comeback” tour, her magnificent voice gone, and her body ravaged by abuse.

In 2012, Houston co-produced and appeared in Sparkle, a remake of one of her favorite movies from the 1970s. Those involved with the film remember how professional — and happy — she was. Three months later, she drowned in a bathtub in Beverly Hills. Three years later, Bobbi Kristina died, eerily in the same way. And the tragedy of Whitney Houston was complete.

Macdonald’s documentary is a powerful reminder of Houston’s beautiful voice and tragic end. Pushing, he prompts his interview subjects to talk about why Houston turned to drugs. The answer is presented toward the end of the film and feels like a cheap shot. Her brother and an aunt both explain that Houston was sexually molested by cousin Dee Dee Warwick during one of the many times the children were cared for by family while their parents toured. Cissy Houston has been vocal since the film’s release, denying the allegations. She and Dionne released a statement together, that while they support victims of sexual abuse:

“We cannot, however, overstate the shock and horror we feel and the difficulty we have believing that my niece Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister) molested two of my three children. I’ve been told — as justification for the invasive theme of this film — that Whitney was a public person and therefore the public has a right to know any and everything about her. I say, NO, she was a famous person … a singer, an actress, a quiet but generous philanthropist. She wasn’t running for office, asking for money or trying to win the right to run anyone’s life. Her job does not entitle the “public” to know every intimate detail of her life beyond what she herself revealed during her lifetime. Although she spoke about her struggle with drugs, the interventions, her daughter Krissi and issues in her marriage, she never PUBLICLY … revealed any claim that she had been molested. IF she was molested I do not believe she would have wanted it to be revealed for the first time to thousands, maybe millions of people in a film.”

Truly, it’s a shame that this late-in-the-game accusation overshadows Houston’s tremendous career. It also, if true, oversimplifies her very complicated journey of self-destruction. Macdonald’s decision to use it — and especially to use it in the way he did — certainly guarantees more buzz for his otherwise excellent film. But, it dishonors the movie’s subject.

And makes the documentary less than it could have been.

 

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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.

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