I can’t recall the first time I heard Whitney Houston sing. She made her debut on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1983, and her debut album “Whitney Houston” came out in 1985. I was too little to partake in either event, but looking back at the past 30 years, Whitney has always been a part in one way or another.
I finally saw the documentary “Whitney” last week at Downtown West. It’s a film I’d been pondering seeing. I’ve never been a big fan of documentaries or nonfiction. Generally, I see a movie or read a book to escape into something frivolous and entertaining. It takes someone or something truly special to make me stray from that.
Whitney fits that bill.
In journalism, subjects of an article usually are referred to by their last name only. It’s a form of unbiased detachment that goes into the story. I’ve done it in stories and reviews before, but Whitney is different. She was such a frequent part of my growing up that she is like a member of my extended family. You know, the ones you never see or talk to, but you still kinda care about.
“Whitney” covers the singer’s life from childhood on. She’s the daughter of a businessman/hustler (John) and a singer (Cissy), who started out as backup and tried to make it on her own. Her mother’s career didn’t turn out the way she wanted, but she had a beautiful daughter with an angel’s voice.
Whitney’s story is told through footage and interviews. Some interviewees say she had a great family and idyllic childhood, but others are called forth to poke holes in that view. Whitney’s parents cheated on each other. She was bullied as a child and sent to a private school in the suburbs where she could be taught how to act like a lady.
(It’s interesting that Arista Records’ Clive Davis can be seen in archival footage commenting on her beauty and poise and noting how cultured and refined she is before he ever mentions her singing ability. Whitney was clearly marketed one way, but the young model was enjoying her life a little too much at this point: drugs, partying and sex.)
There also are brief interviews with her mother. A couple of days ago, news circulated that Cissy is battling dementia, so that might explain why her time was limited onscreen.
Cissy’s dementia isn’t the only news that has made waves since “Whitney” debuted. Whitney’s brother, Gary, and personal assistant, Mary Jones, both made some pretty volatile claims in the film.
They claim Gary and Whitney were abused by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, when they were young. Cissy and Dee Dee’s sister, Dionne, released a joint statement after “Whitney” came out, renouncing the molestation claims and saying the documentary, which was sanctioned by the Houston family, was salacious and untrue in some of its claims.
Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald — his 1999 film “One Day in September” won the best documentary Oscar — creates a fascinating look at Houston’s life. It’s emotional, exciting and fiery. The conversations he has with Whitney’s family and friends is heartwarming and heartbreaking, all at the same time.
You see, Whitney was a delight. Her smile was electric, and her voice seemed sent from Heaven. It didn’t matter the song, watching Whitney sing made you believe she felt every ounce of emotion she put forth. Watching “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” makes you believe Whitney was having an absolute blast during filming. You feel her flirtatious spirit during “Exhale,” and you see her sadness during “I Will Always Love You,” although it’s not as deep as Dolly Parton’s.
But, just as we watch Whitney’s highs, like the 1991 Super Bowl rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the fact she’s the only artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, we also see her lows. Macdonald doesn’t downplay Whitney’s drug use or the volatile relationship with ex-husband Bobby Brown. His philandering and abusiveness are legendary to anyone who paid attention to the tabloids at the time.
Additionally, the film uses news clips quite smartly. As each decade moves forward, so does Whitney’s story. We see civil rights violence, the Rodney King aftermath, O.J., the Clintons and more to give the audience an idea of what stage we’re at in Whitney’s career. It’s also quite fascinating that Whitney and family/friends always had a video camera around. She’s documented as a child, as a teenager developing her stage presence and in the peak of career.
There’s footage of Whitney on stage — in good moments and bad — and personal moments caught behind the scenes — again in good moments and bad. Maybe Whitney always knew she’d be taken too soon and the clips left behind would be all we had left. Or maybe, she just really, really loved the camera. All of her family members were addicted to fame and power, including her brothers who became part of the Houston entourage.
Whitney’s story was cut short in 2012 when she drowned in a hotel bathtub. It was a horrible ending to a beautiful but troubled life. Just as sad, her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died three years later in a similar circumstance.
All of these story threads create a mosaic, allowing us to see an artist who was never who she appeared to us. The film posits that childhood traumas — bullying, the divorce and prior infidelity of her parents, molestation by a family member and relocation to the suburbs — created a gaping hole in her life, one that hindered her personal growth and led ultimately to self-medication.
As she grew older, Whitney developed a sort of cognitive dissonance between her private and public selves so deeply rooted that she couldn’t tell where her real self was. It’s an argument that has a lot of compelling support. However, it doesn’t make this one any easier to watch, because it is so relatable.
Whitney isn’t some superstar here. She’s a woman attempting to discover herself while navigating fame, family, love, mental illness, racism and sexism.
“Whitney” is a reminder that everyone is fighting their own battles, and we will never know what someone else is going though. All we can do is be kind to each other.