Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Whitney: two sides

Just back from being blown away by a screening of Kevin Macdonald's new documentary, Whitney. Never a fan of her music, I had only a passing interest in Whitney Houston's life and death. But seeing the film has shifted my view dramatically. There are so many jaw-dropping moments, from her family/employees speaking about her with no hint of irony, to the shaky home movies shot by her childhood friend and rumoured girlfriend Robyn Crawford in which Houston comes across as playful, mischievous and sharp. This is all in direct contrast to the image of her promoted by her label Arista and its founder Clive Davis. "Whitney Houston", we learn, was her public face. In private, she was Nippy. Nippy was way more compelling.

By then end I was in tears. So many if onlys..... Her mother Cissy Houston left her and her brothers alone, allowing (spoiler alert) the children to be abused by a family member. Years into her stardom, Robyn issued an ultimatum, seeking to get Whitney away from her abusive husband Bobby. Houston accepted her resignation, severing ties that had lasted since they were teens. The film does not disclose whether the two reconciled before the singer's untimely death in 2012. Some quick research reveals Robyn is now happily out and has her own family. Phew. She must have suffered so much being on the edges of Whitney's entourage. It is sobering to realise that the most personal, revealing and insightful footage in the film is that shot by Robyn of Houston backstage. It is Robyn whom Whitney (or more likely Nippy) is looking at when she mugs or slags off Paula Abdul or sings in a wacky voice. But Whitney, perhaps seeking to please Dragon Mother Cissy, wanted to "do what was expected of her", as one interviewee puts it.

Some reviews have castigated the film for focusing on her dramatic life arc rather than her music, but there is plenty of music in the film, some of it quite cleverly edited to focus on her vocal, eerily echoing through the cinema speakers. I still find her oeuvre to be over-produced, bland and hopelessly MOR. But I also recognise she had a grounding in gospel and soul and would have done more in that vein, had the record label agreed.

The film emphasises how big a talent she had but also how alone she was, being pulled in different directions and trying to please everyone, most notably her demanding family. In that sense, she was not a superstar above the fray but someone very human, fragile and badly let down by those who could have looked out for her. A tragic loss.