In Whitney, a former boyfriend reminisces about how he used to feel on top of the world. It’s the ’80s, you’re a young man, you’re driving to pick up Whitney Houston for a date. Whitney Houston.
The images of the singer as an icon of dazzling pop perfection spring immediately to mind. The demure Whitney of 1985, the sporty Whitney of 1987, the glamorous Whitney of 1992. Then, there are the later images: the images of Houston after she wed Bobby Brown in perhaps the most infamous musical marital disaster since Sonny and Cher.
As Behind the Music tragedies go, theirs is downright Shakespearian. Brown’s star fizzled, perhaps inevitably, and he pulled Houston down with him. At least, that’s how conventional wisdom has it…and conventional wisdom isn’t entirely wrong, according to Kevin Macdonald’s fascinating new documentary. The story is just more complicated than that. A lot more complicated.
Slick yet substantive, Whitney methodically unpacks different dimensions of Houston’s life, without landing on any one X-factor that explains the mysteries of her meteoric rise and ineffably sad fall. Macdonald talked to friends and family members including Brown (who comes off as willfully ignorant of his role in enabling the addictions that killed Houston) and Houston’s mother Cissy.
The most conspicuous omission from the list of interviewees is Robyn Crawford, Houston’s longtime intimate friend. Crawford is out as a lesbian; Houston was never out as queer, but a friend calls her “fluid.” Macdonald’s sources unanimously agree that Houston’s intense romantic and sexual love for Brown was real, but her bisexuality was never something she chose or felt able to reveal publicly.
The pressures on Houston to conform to the ideal that was expected of her were so early and intense, Macdonald seems to argue, that she may never have truly known herself. “Whitney can call Nippy,” Houston says in a poignant piece of home video footage referencing her family nickname, “but Nippy can’t call Whitney.”
The film has made headlines for the revelation that Houston and at least one of her brothers were molested as children by their older cousin Dee Dee Warwick: Dionne’s sister, a minor singing star in her own right. Even Cissy Houston, it seems, wasn’t aware of that fact until it came out in the process of making the film. It’s discussed late in the film, one more piece of a puzzle that will never be complete.
Cissy Houston, a veteran singer with experience in both gospel and pop, was the defining influence on her gifted daughter. Cissy cultivated Whitney’s talent, not encouraging her to step fully into the spotlight until she was ready. Was the world ready for her?
Apparently so, since it almost immediately turned her into a superstar. Macdonald’s sources argue that Houston’s success came despite the fact that as a solo female pop singer, she was an anomaly in the mid-1980s. That’s debatable — Tina Turner and Madonna were both burning up the charts when Houston was launching her career — but there was certainly no voice like Houston’s. In a candid moment of backstage video presumably shot in the early ’90s, Houston complains that Paula Abdul was such a talentless singer, she was off-key on the record.
One of the documentary’s most fascinating aspects is its discussion of race. Houston was bullied as a child in Newark for, among other things, being light-skinned; in the ’80s, Al Sharpton encouraged a boycott of “Whitey” Houston for her perceived sell-out to a white audience, and she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. Houston always knew who she was, though, and by the time of her death she was grieved as an emblem of African-American pride.
Macdonald takes time to recognize Houston’s performance of the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, with her music director explaining how she reclaimed a fraught song in a gospel-influenced rendition inspired by Marvin Gaye’s liberating performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
Among the facts that feel like a revelation, although they shouldn’t, is just how long Houston spent in her slow downward spiral. She and Brown were married in 1992, had their daughter Bobbi Kristina in 1993, and were divorced in 2007. Houston succumbed to drowning after drug use in 2012. There were triumphs in those years, but there were also long days, weeks, and months holed up in darkened rooms. Her drug use eventually compromised her inimitable voice, but Macdonald suggests that she may have been coming back into her own as she filmed the movie Sparkle in 2011.
Whitney is reminiscent of another devastating documentary, Amy. The stories’ arcs are different, though: Winehouse was a star who burned brightly even as she was rapidly racing toward her early death, while Houston spent a decade rising to the pinnacle of pop stardom, then spent even longer fading away.
Scenes of Houston in her later years are hard to watch, but they’re also strangely triumphant. There’s a sense, in watching the star laughing and smoking in her kitchen, that she found a kind of peace in her retreat from the spotlight. It was peace amidst enormous pain — some of which she in turn inflicted on others — but whereas some stars seem lost when they can’t perform, Houston comes across as defiant. Nippy may not have been able to call Whitney, but she still calls to us.