Dee Dee Warwick (left) and a young Whitney Houston
Whitney in the studio singing with her mother, Cissy Houston
Whitney with her parents and two brothers
Whitney with her mother and father
Whitney with Robyn Crawford and her two brothers
Whitney with her mother and Dionne Warwick (right)
Mary Jones, Whitney's aunt and personal assistant
Clive Owens, president of Arista Records
singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl
meeting Nelson Mandela in South Africa
Whitney's home in New Jersey
USA Great Britain (120 mi) 2018 d: Kevin Macdonald Official site
A curious documentary that probes under the surface, premiering at Cannes, very much in the same vein as Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015), the film was commissioned and basically authorized by Whitney Houston’s estate, whose executor is the late singer’s sister-in-law, Pat Houston, one of the producers on the film, where Scottish director Kevin Macdonald obtained family access to photos and archival material, also interviews with family members and close associates, and while a few were forthcoming, some to a surprising degree, but most others refused to offer anything but the standard family line, something they’ve been doing their entire lives, never deviating from the script, making this a more difficult challenge than it might seem. The daughter to gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston, who formed the Drinkard Singers, the Gospelaires, and later the Sweet Inspirations, whose career as a back-up singer to Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley is legendary, where Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick are Cissy’s nieces and opera diva Leontyne Price is her cousin, but she also worked as the musical director of their Newark, New Jersey church, where Whitney sang as a child, working closely with her to prepare her for a singing career. Among the first notes we hear come from a music video, but with all the instrumentation stripped away, allowing viewers to hear the pure and unadulterated sounds of Whitney’s singing voice. Today you can hear the booming sounds of Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance With Somebody - YouTube (5:14) echoing throughout giant sports arenas, like baseball, football, basketball, or even hockey games, as the upbeat vibe so perfectly fits the need to entertain fans between plays, amping up the volume, fueling energy into the room, where it’s a mad rush of pure adrenaline. While music is truly international, mixing music with sports is a particularly American touch, as the joyous music typifies what’s best about America, yet it’s also the music to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s first dance at their recent wedding, a song Markle refers to as her “happy song,” so the joy is spread around the world. What’s perhaps notable early on is that Whitney did not respond well to her mother leaving and going on the road all the time, leaving her children in the hands of other family members for long periods of time, where Whitney, the only girl in a family of brothers, was picked on for having lighter skin, a problem unique to black communities plagued by the race issue, something that would follow Whitney throughout her career. After the Newark riots in 1967 and in something of a protective measure, the family moved to a larger house in East Orange and Whitney was sent to an all-girls Catholic high school, where she met her best friend Robyn Crawford, described as the “sister she never had,” who would remain a lifelong confidante for the rest of her life.
Whitney thrived singing in the church, and loved singing with freedom and abandon, but her mother, basically the architect of her musical style and career, was a tough taskmaster, making her repeat things over and over again until she got it right, with Whitney making a surprise appearance at the Sweetwater Club, a Manhattan New York night club replacing her mother, who feigned an illness, and was an instant success, immediately offered record deals, but Cissy refused as she was still in high school, but she did sing back-up jobs with her mother for Chaka Khan at age 15 and by seventeen was also doing modeling work, becoming the first black woman on the cover of Seventeen magazine. But she was solely interested in a singing career, resulting in a bidding war for her services, eventually choosing Clive Owens from Arista Records to represent her, and within a year she made her television debut, singing a song from The Wiz, Whitney Houston's "Home" Live On The Merv Griffin Show 1985 ... (5:03) to a rousing success, which led to her portrayal of a fresh new face with a bubbly image, almost like the innocence of a Disney character where the beautiful Siren-like princess finds fame and fortune by singing for others, thoroughly enchanting them, mysteriously making them melt in her hands. Unlike anyone else in the industry, she had a voice that was set apart from the others, with a three octave range, effortlessly wrapping herself around the words and content of each song, soulfully identifying so completely with what she was singing, breathing new life into every expression, where seeing her live was “an experience.” Few have had the range and distinctive sound that she could produce, embracing and identifying with audiences, raising the artistic quality by so easily hitting and holding every note. In a word she was brilliant, though her commercial appeal was heavily packaged, featuring that natural smile, her beauty, and an ability to have a good time on stage. Her seven consecutive number one hits is still an unmatched feat in the music industry, and her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” WHITNEY HOUSTON - I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU ( GRAMMY´S ... YouTube (5:30) from THE BODYGUARD (1992) soundtrack is still the all-time best-selling single by a female artist. Hilariously, Saddam Hussein used an Arabic version as his campaign song when running for his final presidential term, at the time heard playing on the radio so relentlessly that one man living in tenement housing in the British Isles somewhere complained that his neighbor played it over and over again endlessly, driving him batty, complaining to the police, where the person in question eventually served 7 days in jail. This serves as an example of the Whitney fever that existed around the world, where she was simply uber successful, bringing boatloads of money into the family, many going on tour with her, including Gary Garland (former DePaul basketball player) as a back-up singer, where two other brothers acted as bodyguards and road managers, but were also very open about fulfilling their roles of procuring drugs in every city they visited, something they had been doing since their teenage years.
Certainly one of the most eye-opening sequences described the friendly relationship between Whitney and Robyn Crawford, who was an acknowledged lesbian and considered trouble by the family, who quickly denounced her as a hanger-on and a nobody, but that is obviously a family cover up, as she was her most trusted friend after high school, perhaps the only one who always put Whitney’s needs above all else, working as her assistant, then her executive assistant, and finally her creative director, traveling around the world with her in charge of shows. While it was alleged they were lovers, what’s more important is their friendship, as they were obviously a collaborating team that worked well together personally and professionally, also providing space for Whitney when she needed it, like a place to disappear to and just be herself, not having to be that professional image of herself, which is nearly impossible to live up to. Ask Michael Jackson or Prince, or before them Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin, or countless others in the music biz that lost their lives tragically early. When you have all the money in the world and literally no obstacles, no one telling you no, temptations are lurking everywhere. Crawford provided stability when Whitney’s parents were breaking up, as Cissy was allegedly having an affair with the pastor, which is more than her father John Houston could stand, having his own family’s phone tapped to track his wife’s movements, though he was just as guilty of his own infidelity. He was an important Newark city official in an era post 1967 riots with whites leaving the city in droves, ushering in black officials for the first time to run the city, but it was a corrupt administration, people were on the take, including John who became a power broker authorizing the construction of new buildings. According to his children’s recollections, like The Godfather, you were expected to kiss his gold ring. Now deceased, his life is a bit clouded in ambiguity, though he maintained contact with his daughter’s career, becoming her manager at one point, then sued her for $100 million dollars when she signed with someone else, still wanting a piece of her profits. This move on his part effectively ended their relationship, never speaking to him afterwards. One other revelation was how Whitney was initially perceived by the black community, perceived as too gay, or too white, with the Reverend Al Sharpton leading a boycott against her for appealing to a white audience, calling her “White-ney.” She was actually booed at the Soul Train Awards, which hurt her deeply, as it’s impossible to conceive Whitney Houston as anything but black in the way she sings, among the first black artists to be featured on what was otherwise an all-white MTV, Whitney Houston-How Will I Know (Live on MTV 1986) - YouTube (3:55) or Whitney Houston - All The Man That I Need (Live) - YouTube (6:34) in 1991 from her Welcome Home Heroes concert to honor the troops, obviously taking us back to church with that proud black tradition. Having to defend herself on TV chat shows didn’t seem to have any impact. What caught her eye, however, was the instant appeal of another Soul Train performer, Bobby Brown, which seemed to solve all her problems, as he was black enough, and straight. After a three-year courtship they were married.
While Whitney seems genuinely happy at first, over time the influence of her husband becomes brooding and more imposing, especially when her earnings simply go through the roof, all but leaving him in the dust as a performing artist, which seems to deflate his image of a man, so he misbehaves as a way of getting attention. The film disproves any thought that he may have introduced Whitney to drugs, as that came from her own brothers at age 16, who call Bobby Brown a lightweight in terms of drug use. So quite a few things are going on behind the scenes, as her husband and father genuinely detest the influence of Robyn Crawford, yet it turns out their own influence is much more damaging, eventually pushing Crawford out altogether, who felt Brown’s philandering and self-destructive influence on Whitney’s career would have a devastating influence, as they simply retreated for days and weeks on end behind hotel room doors, each fighting their own demons, struggling with addiction issues, which the family continued to deny, never acknowledging any real or profound impact, despite Whitney’s public attempts to seek treatment, almost always leaving prematurely, with her husband apparently threatened by her sobriety, eventually falling back into the same habits. Drugs destroyed both her voice and her career, so it’s telling that two of the closest to Whitney, her mother and her husband, wouldn’t even discuss drug use before the camera, with Brown astonishingly claiming it had nothing to do with her death. As people don’t normally drown in hotel bathtubs, viewers will find him both delusional and detestable. Much more forthcoming is Mary Jones, Whitney’s aunt and personal assistant, the one who discovered Whitney dead in a Beverly Hilton bathtub at age 48, who heartbreakingly witnessed a 14-year marriage fall apart and end in divorce, with both fatally inadequate to raise a child, as their daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died at age 22 in a death identical to her mother. It was Mary Jones, along with one of Whitney’s brothers, Gary Garland, who insinuated sexual abuse, as Garland was himself abused as a child around age 8 or 9, naming his cousin Dee Dee Warwick (now deceased, but who would have been in her late 20’s), suggesting she abused Whitney as well, particularly when her mother was away for long periods of time and the children were left in her care. What is intimated here is that Whitney wasn’t able to come to terms with her sexuality, and be open about it, because of the horror of that abuse. This discovery comes late in the film and was discovered near the end of the director’s shoot, where the family finds it a detestable admission in the film, like what good does that do now? Certainly one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the film is the unspoken realization of how much the family contributed to Whitney’s demise, as they repeatedly covered up for her, always singing her praises, but leaving out the darker side with the long-lasting scars. Perhaps most telling is Macdonald’s interview with a tearful Lynn Volkman, Whitney’s publicist, who had been with her since the start of her career. “I’ve spent 25 years lying about Whitney, so it’s very difficult for me to get into the other gear of actually trying to say what is truthful…I now feel so guilty. I thought I was helping her. I was doing what was required of me. But actually, I was enabling the addiction, and enabling all this bad behavior by doing that. Why did I do that?” Of course, that’s a question none of us can answer, offering instead a devastatingly poignant and emotionally involving film that explores the highs and lows in equal measure, filled with touching moments throughout, offering a special glimpse of this mega-star performer who lost a personal struggle with her own demons.