About three-quarters through the new Whitney Houston documentary – the second in the past year – director Kevin Macdonald drops the much-chattered-about bombshell about young Whitney being sexually molested by a relative (Dee Dee Warwick). There’s something off-key about the moment of revelation, like it’s supposed to be the “Rosebud” of Whitney, but by that point in the film we’ve been introduced to so many villains, enablers, suspects that we’re just exhausted. Isn’t this a summer film? Where is the superhero (Kevin Costner pops in to congratulate himself on the colorblind casting of The Bodyguard, and good for him, but he didn’t whisk her away in real life and shield her)? Not many people come off well here, not her family, certainly, not Bobby Brown or L.A. Reid (who ran Arista in the early 2000’s, when Whitney was in horrendous shape, but who claims on camera to have been unaware of her drug problem). The woman who seems to have cared the most about Whitney, Robyn Crawford, isn’t interviewed on screen, but is the subject of some nasty homophobia, and how about some blame for the state of affairs where Whitney was pressured to deny what was perhaps her healthiest relationship?
Whitney is crushingly sad, of course. And cinematically effective, if what you mean by that is that it keeps you in knots wishing there were something you could do to stop the relentless downward spiral. There are a lot of familiar scenes here: the incandescent TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show, the cascade of boos at the Soul Train Awards, the epic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the catastrophic interview with Diane Sawyer. Macdonald seems to be in an awful hurry to get to the juicy stuff, like “yeah, yeah, all those hit records and awards and Hollywood, got it.” There’s not a lot of delving into her recording career which, you might think, would be kind of important. The first three Arista albums zip by in one of those montages that zoom in on the names of songs sprinting up the Billboard charts, like the singles were train stops in an old movie on TCM where a vaudeville act hits the road. One minute she’s on the Griffin show doing the song “Home” from The Wiz, and snap! she’s the biggest pop artist on the planet. How did that happen? Macdonald doesn’t say, really. She had a great voice and she was real pretty, I guess.
Whitney is in its way a valuable piece of the saga, thorough and definitive about how drugs derailed her; there’s some footage that is so raw and invasive that it’d have been nice if someone had tapped a cameraman on the shoulder and lead him into a hallway. But what Whitney is going to need at some point is a biographer to do for her what Peter Guralnick did for Elvis Presley, dig into the music and the cultural influences that shaped her, separate the accepted version of her story from the truth. What we’re always told is that the record label that signed her (confession for those who might not know: I worked there, was involved in her early publicity and marketing campaigns, and later was on Clive Davis’s A&R staff that searched for Whitney songs; one of the songs I suggested is in the movie) transformed her into a pop diva, steering her away from music that was too “black.”
Which is nonsense. If anyone was grooming Whitney Houston for a mainstream audience, it was her mom. There was some Mama Rose in Gypsy stuff going on (“Sing out, Whitney!!”), with an idea of what was classy, how a young lady in show biz should behave. When the labels started showing up at Cissy’s gigs to see what her teenaged daughter was up to, the younger Houston was all dolled up, and singing songs from The Wiz and Dreamgirls. And “The Greatest Love of All,” which she sang beautifully: it’s a song about self-belief and autonomy (“If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe”), not walking in anyone else’s shadow, keeping one’s dignity, all that Oprahbabble. For better or worse, ok worse, that song came to define her before it was supplanted as her anthem by the Anthem, and by “I Will Always Love You.”
If anything, one mandate at Arista was to muss her up a bit, make her less pristine, more youthful. She may have walked in the door with “The Greatest Love of All,” and there were those other Michael Masser “All” ballads that followed – “Saving All My Love For You,” “All at Once,” Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (and “All the Man That I Need” which is not by Masser but might as well be) – but the records that have stuck the most engagingly are “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “So Emotional.” Whitney in the throes of infatuation, ready to break loose, cause some mischief. The playful Whitney is sometimes forgotten, because the ballads are so show-boaty, so filled with the drama we now associate with her life. But I loved that Whitney, the girlish one on “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” looking for a little bit of excitement: “When the night falls,” she sang, “my lonely heart calls.” You just wanted to take her hand, rescue her.