Whitney (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): The life and career of Whitney Houston

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Documentary film “Whitney” gives us a close look at the life and career of Whitney Houston, a famous singer who has been remembered for not only her meteoric rise but also the following downward spiral of which she could never get out in the end. To be frank with you, I do not know much about her except that famous song in “The Bodyguard” (1992) and the public humiliation involved with her drug addiction, so watching the documentary was an enlightening experience for me, and I came to feel sorry for her more than before as wondering whether she could have risen again if it had been not for her tragic death in February 2012.

Like many African American female singers of her generation, Houston began to distinguish herself as singing at the local church of her neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, and she also grew up in an ideal background for nurturing her talent. Her father John Russell Houston Jr., who was a prominent civil servant in the city, and her mother Cissy Houston, who was a singer who mainly worked as a background singer for many famous singers such as Aretha Franklin, provided their daughter and other children a nice middle-class environment, and Cissy was quite determined to make her daughter become a famous singer she never was. She and Houston frequently clashed with each other as she pushed her daughter harder, but it is undeniable that Houston’s natural talent was enhanced further by her mother’s teaching. Several years later, there came a moment for her big break when Cissy deliberately had her daughter perform at a club instead of her during one evening, and Houston surely impressed everyone in the club during that performance.

This considerable public success of hers led to getting a contract with Arista Records, and Houston kept going further after making her first TV appearance in 1983. With a series of big hit songs during next several years, she soon reached to the top of her field, and then she had two defining moments for her career. In 1991, she performed the national anthem during the Super Bowl, and her distinctive rendition of the national anthem mesmerized millions of people watching her on TV. In the next year, she tried acting in “The Bodyguard”, and its box office success and her stunning performance of Dolly Parton’s song “I’ll Always Love You” in the movie further boosted her career.

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However, her career slowly began to go down due to a number of personal problems. It was no secret among people close to Houston that she was quite close to her friend Robyn Crawford, and Houston’s family members did not like Crawford much for her considerable influence on Houston. As frankly shown in the documentary, most of them depended a lot on Houston in one way or another, and Crawford was certainly a disagreeable factor to them.

Meanwhile, Houston met Bobby Brown, a popular singer who had led his own successful career. After romantically involved with each other for a while, they eventually married in 1992, but their relationship got deteriorated as Houston’s career became far more successful than Brown’s, and that led to numerous troubles in their married life. Brown frequently caused public scandals as becoming more bitter about being regarded as “Mister Houston”, but Houston tried to maintain their marriage, and she even let Crawford walk away from her even though Crawford had been the most dependable figure in her life besides her mother.

And her drug addiction problem continued to get worse and worse. Around the early 2000s, Houston could not hide her problem anymore as everyone was shocked by how much she looked different than before, and then she had an embarrassing moment when she admitted her problem during her TV interview with Diane Sawyer. While quickly becoming a target for cruel gossips and jokes, she went down further into her pit of addiction, and things became gloomier for her after she and Brown came to divorce in 2007. She tried to make a comeback a few years later, but that attempt only resulted in the most disastrous moment in her career, and she also became virtually penniless.

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The documentary provides some explanation on Houston’s personal demons. According to one interviewee in the documentary, Houston was sexually abused by one of her relatives when she was very young, and that might be the origin of her self-destructive behaviors. Although nothing is confirmed, you will probably be surprised to learn who is allegedly responsible for that sexual abuse.

Anyway, Houston tried to restore her career around the early 2010s while also trying to deal with her drug addiction. It seemed she would get the second chance via her solid supporting turn in “Sparkle” (2011), but, alas, she died at the age of 48 not long after the shooting of that movie is over, and her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who also struggled with drug addiction as much as her mother, died under a similar circumstance three years later.

“Whitney” is directed by Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for “One Day in September” (1999) and made several admirable documentary films such as “Touching the Void” (2003) and “Marley” (2012). Although it does not reach the harrowing emotional level of Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary “Amy” (2015), the documentary is mostly engaging on the whole in its deft mix of interview and archival footage clips, and it does a commendable job of presenting Houston as a talented artist and spirited human being. She was indeed a wonderful singer, and it is a shame that she left us too early.

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