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Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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