Film Review: ‘Whitney’

Since her premature death in 2012, Whitney Houston’s life has been the subject of films, articles, books and television shows but this documentary directed by Kevin MacDonald is the first to gain the cooperation of Whitney’s family. Despite a strong first half eventually this film falls into speculation, cheap gossip and outrageous accusations about her personal life and eventual death.

The movie opens with a recording of Whitney discussing a dream where she’s on a bridge pursued by the ‘devil’. MacDonald takes that as his central driving question: what were the demons that caused Whitney’s decent into drug addiction and death?

The first part of the film concentrates on her childhood, and points the finger at her mother. Cissy is accused of being absent, striving for ‘middle class’ security through her work as a backing singer. It’s an insult really to suggest that women can’t have careers, or go on the road without their children coming to harm later in life. As Cissy explains in her lengthy critical attack on the film,   when she was gone her children still had their father at home.

What we do learn from the film is that Cissy’s career actually made Whitney the singer she was. Cissy taught Whitney everything she knew – to sing was to use your ‘heart and mind and guts’. She may have been a disciplinarian but her dedication to her daughter meant Whitney appeared at 19 on the world stage looking like a natural. In reality Whitney had been given years of training by one of the best and most experienced gospel singers in America.

And Cissy doesn’t come across as a bitter woman who forced Whitney on the stage because her career failed either, even if the film tries to make that case. On the contrary Cissy was successful and wanted her daughter to become the same. As a teen Whitney sang in church and as a backing vocalist for her mother’s performances. One night Cissy said she’d lost her voice and Whitney had to take lead. Of course it was a ruse to see if she ‘could cut it’. She could, and the rest is history.

Whitney signs with Clive Davis and records her first album, aimed at the pop market. Later Whitney complains that the 80s is all about image and she just wants to stand and sing the song. She criticises Paula Abdul for bad vocals and gimmicks. You can see how conflicted she is being a black soul artist packaged and marketed to the mass white audience, just like Motown before her. At the time Whitney suffered because of these choices, and was actually booed at the Soul Train awards, which seems ridiculous now. Her mother believed Whitney was making legacy music and her instinct has proved correct.

The film shines when Whitney’s music is given centre stage and there are powerful solo performances included like her first television appearance and her legendary interpretation of the Star Spangled Banner. A montage is used to show how successful she became in the 80s, an overwhelming mass of glitz, glamour, excess and consumerism. There are some thoughtful conclusions about her success in the film The Bodyguard and how it gave a black woman an old fashioned Hollywood romantic lead, almost unheard of at the time.

At this point the film takes a turn for the worst, along with Whitney’s career and personal life. Time is spent exploring her drug use and it is revealed that Whitney started taking drugs regularly at 16. It is her brothers who seem the most culpable, introducing her to drugs and then following her on tour supplying her with drugs for partying every night. For the whole of her career everyone around her appeared to be heavily involved in drugs.

The next part of her life that is explored is her relationship with Robyn Crawford, her friend who worked as her creative director and personal assistant until 1999. The movie speculates about Whitney’s sexuality and exposes her family’s horrific homophobia. If Whitney was in a relationship with a woman you can understand why she would never admit it and there’s seems to be little need to include such gossip. It is unsurprising that Robyn is the only key player in her life who does not contribute to this film.

Before watching the film most people, myself included, probably thought Bobby Brown was the ‘devil’ in Whitney’s life but MacDonald offers an alternative take. Bobby cuts a pathetic figure, shown to be an insecure and weak man who was unable to cope when Whitney’s fame escalated and his declined. The idea that he caused Whitney’s drug use is openly mocked by her brothers, with Brown being labelled a ‘lightweight’. Whitney, it seemed, found him a fun and funny guy, someone to party with and a chance for a fairytale happy ending. In the end it was a disastrous relationship for them both and their daughter’s horrific death was the collateral damage.

Then comes the next potential ‘devil’, her cousin Dee Dee Warwick who is accused of abusing Whitney. As a fan of both singers I was disturbed to read the allegations and wanted to know exactly what was said in the film. It is Whitney’s brother who first makes the claim, saying he was abused by Dee Dee as a child. Then Whitney’s assistant recalls a conversation where Whitney admitted the same. There is no other evidence submitted or any attempt to discuss this allegation with other members of her family.

Now it is vitally important we respect the stories of victims and despite my initial skepticism, I can’t dismiss these claims against Dee Dee. There seems to be no reason for Whitney’s brother to say he was abused if he wasn’t. Cissy and Dionne have released a detailed and strongly worded statement refuting the claims in the film, saying that Dee Dee was never in charge of the children. I have previously written about Dee Dee and her life, which also descended into drug use and premature death. The only truth we can be sure of is that this whole family appear to have been hugely talented but deeply troubled by addiction. What went on behind closed doors can never be known. To have their personal history used by a filmmaker to gain attention seems another unfortunate consequence of Whitney’s fame.

Her tragic death was inevitable and no shock to anyone who knew and worked with her. To see it played out on the big screen is as harrowing and upsetting as when I first heard the news. The movie ends abruptly and does not attempt to explore the aftermath of her death. It finishes with a replaying of the story about the devil chasing her. Watching this documentary you have to conclude that the devil in Whitney’s life was just the drugs themselves.

As a teenager thrust into a world of excess, on tour where there’s a party every night and your entourage are happy to supply anything and everything you want then it’s not hard to develop a habit. You don’t need to have a reason to start taking drugs other than the fun of it. Once addiction takes you in its grip there is little you can do to get out of it. You don’t need to blame her childhood, her mother, he father, her brothers, her husband, her friends, her wealth, her fame. Much of the footage used in the film is of Whitney enjoying herself, partying, living life at breakneck speed. She doesn’t look like a tortured victim, just someone who got out of control and couldn’t find her way back.

And yes she should have had better help with her daughter and better chances to go to rehab, without being forced to go on tour and make money. The film is also a strong argument against ever allowing your family to be a part of your career. Money and fame corrupted her relationship with nearly everyone in her life. She had no one willing to stage the intervention she needed and it’s unfathomable to think her daughter would suffer the same cruel fate.

In the end what makes Whitney’s life a compelling narrative is her stunning gift and how easily she was able to destroy it. The director was not a fan of Whitney’s music before beginning this project and perhaps it shows in the lack of discussion of her artistic legacy. One day I hope someone makes a documentary about Whitney’s voice, her music and her influence on pop culture across the last three decades. Sadly, despite a strong first half and the wonderful live footage included, ‘Whitney’ does not fully give its subject back the dignity and respect she deserves.

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