The extraordinary success, heartbreak and tragedy of one of the most successful pop singers of all time makes for a riveting documentary film that opened at movie theatres in the UK last week.
Now, authorised accounts on the lives of artists, particularly one as high profile as Whitney Houston, tend to be uncritical and aimed at airbrushing their legacies.
Not so the film “Whitney”. Even though the biopic was made with the cooperation of the singer’s family and estate, it does not tell her story with rose tinted glasses.
Instead this incredible talent who attained super stardom that pop artists can only dream of is duly celebrated, but the accounts in the film also lay bare the monsters that haunted her life.
Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald who is no stranger to the biopic film genre, having had success with the 2012 Bob Marley documentary, “Marley”, speaks to the closest family and friends of Whitney who fondly knew her as “Nippy”, and professionals who were witness to the high and lows, the triumphs and tragedies in her dramatic life.
By so doing the film reveals some stunning secrets about the troubled personal life of Whitney Houston who died in 2012.
From a childhood when she sexually abused by a relative, bullied at school for her light skin, the anguish at the break up of her parents’ marriage (her mother had an affair with a church minister), and a drug habit that was instigated in her teenage by her brothers.
As her older brother Gary Houston says, the drug use started long before Whitney’s tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown: “Bobby was lightweight (on drug use), we lapped him. “Marijuana and cocaine were the drugs of choice,” he says. Gary became one of his sister’s back up singers when his own professional basketball career came to an end after failing a drug test.
When asked point blank on camera about Whitney’s drug habits, Bobby Brown responds, “That has nothing to do with this documentary or anything I want to speak about. That’s not what killed her.”
It is in the course of talking about his own struggles with drug addiction that Gary claims that he and Whitney were both sexually molested as children by a cousin and singer Dee Dee Warwick.
Mary Jones who was the late singer’s assistant for the last 10 years of her life also says that Whitney shared the story of that childhood experience with her.
The filmmakers were given access to a rich audio-visual archive of Whitney Houston’s public and private life, including recording session outtakes and backstage footage, many of which have never been seen publicly.
There are revealing scenes showing Whitney in different moods, joyous and playful and other times frustrated and angry, often smoking.
There are many unguarded moments, laughing, cursing and lashing out at other female singers like Paula Abdul who, according to her, sing “off key” and are only successful because they have an image.
Her mother Cissy Houston, whose own career included singing background vocals for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, was her vocal coach, demanding perfection from Whitney. “You learn to sing from abdomen, chest and the head and Whitney learned them all,” she says.
There are some outstanding musical moments in the film such as her breathtaking performance of “I will always love you” at Ellis Park, South Africa and her soulful, gospel tinged rendition of the US national anthem “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991. “She brought the spirit to the anthem, says producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
As her sister-in-law Pat Houston explains, the film on her life is important because ‘What happened to Whitney is not an isolated incident, it could happen to anyone’.