- Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
- Starring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Clive Davis, L.A. Reid
- Classification: 14A
- 120 minutes
At the beginning of the 2012 Grammy Awards, the day after Whitney Houston died, ceremony host LL Cool J addressed the tragedy by affirming with ecclesiastical poise that there’d been “a death in the family.”
Less than 24 hours before, the world had learned that the iconic singer died of what would later be ruled accidental drowning and “the effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use.” Fans mourned an artist whose unstoppable voice had sheathed them in reprieve from their own demons, who once told an interviewer she thought of “people” when she sang, not of any particular person or prospect. Still, the person they mourned was a stranger, albeit one whose pain became less veiled as time went on.
In the new documentary Whitney, Houston’s inner circle – including her mother, the singer Cissy Houston, and her ex-husband Bobby Brown, among other family members and colleagues – retrace years of woeful steps that, even in hindsight, offer little comfort or closure, but perhaps some explanation.
The film is a sad calamity of conflicting narratives as those closest to Houston work through varying stages of honesty and denial. One of Houston’s aunts becomes defensive when asked whether anything in Houston’s childhood may have burdened the singer with traumatic memories, insisting that her upbringing was “idyllic.” Others, such as Houston’s long-time personal assistant, Mary Jones, share that Houston said she’d been sexually abused by her late cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, when Houston was a child and Warwick was in her late 20s. (In a statement this week, Cissy Houston called the allegation “unfathomable.” Jones released her own statement, saying, “Whitney was a wonderful woman, an angel, and she did not drag herself down all alone – there was a cause.”) Warwick died in 2008.
Music executive L.A. Reid, whose idea it was to schedule Houston’s infamously unsettling televised interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002, claims to have not known she had any addictions. On the contrary, Joey Arbagey of Arista Records, who worked with Houston on albums in the latter phase of her career, recalls Houston retreating to her hotel room for 10 days at a time, emerging frail. (“Deep down she was a girl in pain,” says Arbagey. “But she was so fun.”) Bobby Brown declines to discuss the drugs at all, despite being prominently held accountable for the abusive behaviour that surely made Houston’s life more reliant on them. Their wedding footage is presented as a prelude to darkness, and Brown as a jealous partner whose ego Houston boosted by lowering herself.
Ultimately what Whitney adds to the arduous process of reaching conclusion in a horrible situation is dependent upon the beholder. If one seeks a voyeuristic gaze at tragedy unfolding from a safe distance, the components are there – imagery of Houston and Brown’s young daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, who died in 2015, snorting cocaine, millions wasted on frivolous travel and unused studio time, the condemnable photo of Houston’s Atlanta bathroom counter, a copy of which was purchased earlier this year by Kanye West for a reported US$85,000 and tastelessly featured on rapper Pusha T’s Daytona album cover.
One could also view the film as testament to how abuse hitches itself to a person’s soul, and how addiction destroys – Houston’s tragedy spread out like a map on a voyage in reverse. If nothing else, there are lessons to be mined from loss.
At a press screening in Toronto, some of the audience laughed at Houston’s expense during clips from Saturday Night Live and Family Guy which mocked her addictions, despite this being a film about the pain that sustained them. It was troubling and upsetting to be surrounded by peers so shamelessly roused by the very inhumanity Houston could not escape, even in her death. But the inclusion of Houston’s first ever television appearance, on The Merv Griffin Show in 1983, her 1991 Super Bowl XXV performance and footage of her 1994 concerts in South Africa – the first concerts to take place postapartheid – remind us all that her giftedness and spark were indisputable.
Perhaps there is a third way to watch this film, and that’s to revel in the power and dignity of Whitney Houston the hero, the ebullient talent whose voice was vast to the point of soothing mystery, the way an ocean is incessant even in a heartless world.