Looking back at the biggest musicians from the 80s sadly precious few of them remain with us today. Gone are Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Rick James, Robert Palmer, and, of course, Whitney Houston.
Director/writer Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) has spent a good part of his over 20 year career making documentaries. Previously delving into subjects as varied as Chaplin’s Goliath, a look at the butcher of Lyon and Gestapo commander, Klaus Barbie, the different traditions of Christmas in the U.K., and a couple of climbers who attempt the ascent of the Peruvian Andes. Now, he takes on singer/actress Whitney Houston.
Her musical ascent came about at a time where videos were born, tabloids mercilessly followed celebrities around and pop superstars became global icons. The pressures and expectations were huge. We built them up just to knock them down. When Whitney Houston, a singer who had previously been thought of as America’s sweetheart, fell it was a free fall. MacDonald attempts to take an in-depth look into the personal life and the music career of the woman to gain some insight into the addictions that eventually led to her death.
Born in the rough streets of Newark, New Jersey, Whitney Houston was the only girl of three children. Her mother Cissy Houston was a singer who had worked alone, with a group and as a backup singer for artists like Aretha Franklin. Cissy was Whitney’s singer teacher. She began with her in the choir at the New Hope Baptist Church and then as she moved on to performing as her mother’s backup singer at club gigs. Wanting her daughter to succeed, Cissy was not easy on Whitney and friction grew between them. So much so that as soon as she turned 18, Whitney moved out of the house.
Around the middle of the 80s with the release of her first album, the self-titled Whitney in 1985, she just exploded onto the music scene. Number one hit after number one hit followed. With that came fame, fortune, many awards, and even roles in movies. As the story that is old as time goes, somehow all that money and adoration was not enough. Whitney Houston remained seemingly unfulfilled.
The decline truly began after her marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown. Soon after she gave birth to their only child, daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown. Bobby Brown did not seem to handle his wife’s success very well and soon came a string of arrests and scandals. By the late 90s all this began to wear off on Whitney with her good girl reputation becoming tarnished.
Rumours of her drug use (that by Bobby was already established) began to gain traction. No-shows at scheduled gigs began to happen. Talk of throat issues cropped up. She was then fired from a scheduled performance at the 2000 Academy Awards. It was in 2001 where she could no longer deny her issues. An appearance at a Michael Jackson tribute concert in which her voice was shaky and she was rail thin shocked everyone. Trying to regain her standing in the music community, Whitney agreed to do an interview with Diane Sawyer. Instead of reassuring her fans it cemented in their minds that she was a woman with problems. This is the interview where the infamous “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. Okay? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack.” statement was uttered by Houston.
She continued to release albums and tour, but things were never the same. In 2007, she and Bobby Brown divorced. Houston got full custody of their daughter. In 2010, mostly due to a need to make money as she was pretty much broke, Whitney Houston embarked on her first world tour in around a decade. It earned her poor reviews and shows were cancelled due to throat issues. Many fans walked out of shows. Then on February 11, 2012 it was all over. She was found dead in a hotel bathtub. Tragic.
MacDonald had previously done documentaries on musicians Marley (Bob Marley) and Being Mick (Mick Jagger), so he is no stranger to the music world. As such, he earned the cooperation of the Whitney Houston estate when making this film. Everyone of importance, her friends, family and ex-husband Bobby Brown were all interviewed for the film. Some of the footage he uses to construct the picture of her life were previously unseen. When you take all of the information you are given about the woman – from her childhood to becoming a superstar – you begin to believe it was inevitable that she reach this type of end.
He is quite good at trying to show us things we didn’t know about or sides of a famous person we were not aware of. Difficult as usually all is known. Trying to find something fresh is easier said than done. There are some revelations here. Scenes of her shading Paula Abdul’s singing, her brother and a friend talking of how she had been sexually molested by a female family member as a child, how it was not Bobby Brown who introduced her to drugs, rather she began at the tender age of 16, and that because of the assault as a child that she questioned her sexuality throughout her life.
The first half of the film deals with the early life and rise of the singer to superstardom while the second half covers the downfall mired in drugs, alcohol and loss of her incredible voice. Her personal demons haunted her. Despite all the adoration. As you watch the second half of the film you find yourself as drained emotionally as the subject. It is all rather heartbreaking.
While watching this it reminded me of the Asif Kapadia documentary of the British singer Amy Winehouse, who met a similar end as Whitney. The parallels were a little eerie with the drug use/abuse, the snake of a husband/boyfriend and the father who just seemed to see his daughter as a means to money and power. Another star who had failed herself, but who we had also failed.