Film & Television

Tragedy eclipses talent in ‘Whitney’

By Anwen Crawford
Kevin Macdonald’s documentary inadvertently downplays Houston’s impact on pop music history

There’s a piece of handycam footage in Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary, Whitney, that gives the film, which is full of carefully paced disclosures, one of its few truly candid moments. Whitney Houston, slumped on a couch backstage somewhere during her stadium-filling, platinum-selling years, is disconsolate over her chart competitors. Paula Abdul “ain’t shit” and sings off-key, complains Houston. Houston’s mother, Cissy, a dynamite singer in her own right – she had worked with Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Elvis Presley – counsels and comforts. Whitney has “class”, Cissy assures her, and, more importantly, a great gift; “God laid his hands on you.” Paula Abdul isn’t worth worrying about, and, as for “that bitch Janet Jackson”, she can keep it.

This little scene, unflattering to all involved, dramatises at least a few of the pressures that came to bear on Whitney Houston’s life and career: a stifling relationship with her immediate family, most of whom were also paid employees aboard Houston’s star express; an understanding of herself, encouraged by her family, as one especially chosen, and destined for greatness; and a cultivated remoteness from her musical peers, several of whom have remained contemporary touchstones in a way that Houston has not.

Houston has been influential, for sure: her upright, Christian, girl-next-door image was a type of pop femininity that later artists, including Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, have deployed. But from today’s vantage she also feels like a throwback, a perspective that Macdonald’s film – with its stock footage montages of the mid ’80s and early ’90s set to Houston’s hits – does nothing to dispel. Whitney Houston is Coca-Cola is Ronald Reagan is aerobics is turtlenecks is the Waco siege. These quick, breezy trips through an era rather muddy the director’s intentions: are we to understand that Houston was a product of her time, or simply a product, interchangeable with a soft drink? I think Macdonald means the former but inadvertently suggests the latter.

There is a lot in Whitney about Houston’s upbringing, family, lovers, marriage and death. But musical history is the film’s weak spot and the consequence of that, despite Macdonald’s clear affection for his subject, is to underplay Houston’s impact by depriving her artistry of its proper context. Houston was an outstanding, church-trained singer in a family of such; not just her mother, Cissy, but her first cousins, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, forged notable singing careers. This much we’re given, but beyond that, Houston’s place in pop music history goes largely unexamined.

Often enough the songs that she sang were knocked flat by the sheer power of her voice. Her version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is a case in point: Houston’s vocal is astonishing, and far too much for Parton’s song, which requires a touch of frugality to bring out its real sorrow. And yet, Houston’s recording of “I Will Always Love You”, released in late 1992 as the lead single from The Bodyguard soundtrack – a film in which she also starred – remains among the best-selling singles of all time. It ruled the Australian chart for 10 weeks and the American chart for 14; anyone who was alive in the early ’90s will remember the feeling of being utterly surrounded by it. Clearly, the world wanted what Houston had to give.

Her wholesomeness, her sunniness, the sense of hard work that went along with her talent: all of these things were appealing. And her melismatic, six-notes-to-the-syllable vocal style seemed to answer a desire in her listeners for musical abundance, even super-abundance. The combination of these things – innocence and authority, respectability and riches – was very powerful, and it remains the fairytale of vocal talent shows to this day, where naive hopefuls are ever to be found, singing auditions of “I Will Always Love You”.

The fairytale did not last long in Houston’s own life. Abundance of a different kind brought her undone – cocaine destroyed her voice and her health, and contributed to her premature death at the age of 48. Most of Houston’s family and close associates are interviewed on camera in Whitney: her two brothers, Michael and Gary, are frank about their own habits and the role they played in supplying drugs to their sister, but Bobby Brown, Houston’s former husband, refuses point-blank to discuss the issue. “Drugs had nothing to do with her life,” he insists. One gets the sense that nobody, at the time, really cared why Houston was so mired in addiction or how to get her out of it, not so long as the money to pay for the high life was still rolling in. Certainly the press, which had fawned over Houston during her ascendance, had no compunction in turning upon her, and viciously.

Late in the film, serious accusations of abuse are raised against a family member – accusations that might go some way to explaining Houston’s self-destructive bent, but which, retrospectively, make her trajectory seem doomed from the start. That feeling of bad fate didn’t sit well with me. Without a doubt, abuse could have damaged Houston, and perhaps irreparably. But personal tragedy, especially when it involves addiction, always overshadows the achievements of women artists in a way that isn’t so for men. Look at Janis Joplin, or Amy Winehouse. For all their talent, they are objects of pity, whereas men who fuck it up – Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain – get to keep their aura of genius, which only shines brighter posthumously.

It seems inevitable that a documentary about Houston relatively soon after her death – and there have been two such films in quick succession – would focus on her personal decline at the expense of her musical achievements, and that’s a shame. Whitney is a compassionate portrait, but one day, I hope, a different kind of film will be made about Houston, one that doesn’t brush aside her pain but that does take the time to thoroughly explore her music, especially songs like “How Will I Know”, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”, or her late flourish of excellence, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”. These are the songs that gave Houston a type of musical constraint against which she could play her phenomenal voice to its best advantage, and which stand as her greatest legacy.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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