My wife and I had gone out to eat before catching this documentary at the Angelika Film Center. We got some cookies at the concession stand and as the film started, the wife leans in and says, “I feel about these cookies, like Whitney Houston felt about crack.”
I laughed. But after watching this movie, I was ashamed at myself for laughing. In fact, I feel horrible at having ever made fun of her. About five times during this documentary I cried at the sadness of what was happening to this amazing talent. She was bullied as a child in a poor neighborhood, for being light-skinned. When she had some hits, she was booed by a black audience when her name was announced at an award show. She was molested by a relative as a child. She had to hide a lesbian relationship with a woman that truly loved her and treated her well. She had family stealing from her. She got into drugs. And just as I learned later in life that it wasn’t Yoko that broke up the Beatles or influenced John to leave the band…it wasn’t Bobby Brown that got her hooked on drugs. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It got worse with him, and he’s a horrible human being. But she started doing drugs as a teenager, and never stopped. In a lot of ways, this made me think of Amy, the documentary on Amy Winehouse. Both had amazing voices. Both had fathers who took advantage of them. Both started doing drugs as teenagers. Both died way too young. For some reason, although I’m a bigger fan of Winehouse, this documentary moved me so much more. It could be because director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, Black Sea) made this with such compassion and asked very probing questions of Houston’s family members. Sometimes they weren’t so willing to spill the beans on what they knew.
It’s unfortunate we couldn’t hear from the woman that seems to be the true love of her life — Robyn Crawford (who now has a wife working for Esquire, where she wrote a piece about Houston after her death). It’s crazy to find out how their relationship (both professionally and personally) ended.
I can’t believe Bobby Brown even agreed to be interviewed for this. At least he’s not just given softball questions to answer, and it’s nice to see him get angry at the questions about their drug use.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear from Houston’s famous cousin Dionne Warwick, but with the charges against her sister Dee Dee Warwick (the late singer who had a bit of fame), you can understand why she might have been reluctant to participate.
It was refreshing that this documentary didn’t just rely on clips we’ve all seen, or her painful reality show with Brown. Sure, we see the clip of her tremendous rendition of the National Anthem (everyone was moved and nobody took a knee). It’s interesting to find out how her musical partner came up with the music for the orchestra to play and how it almost turned out disastrously.
Remember how we cringed when Kevin Costner (her Bodyguard co-star) was seen in the Madonna documentary backstage, telling her the show was “neat”? Well, the backstage moment we get here that was “neat” was hearing Cissy Houston diss Janet Jackson, and Whitney dissing Paula Abdul, and using a weird, old-timey voice to say “I’ll never sell out.” Although, she does go from gospel-inspired, amazing vocal performances to more dance-oriented pop tunes. And that leads me to something else. Al Sharpton lead a campaign protesting her, calling her “Whitey Houston” and telling people to boycott her. Near the end of the movie, we hear him on CNN talking about the tragedy of her death and how talented she was. Seriously, why does anybody give Sharpton any airtime for his idiotic opinions on anything?
Speaking of idiots, it was also strange to see so many people in the movie that don’t have careers anymore. We see a clip of Matt Lauer singing her praises. We see Heather Locklear giving her an award. We hear Whitney talk about wanting to star in a movie with Mel Gibson. We hear her family being talked about being like the Cosby’s.
I didn’t care for how edits were made showing current world events around the time period. It felt like a technique that’s been overused in documentaries and didn’t fit here. Perhaps if they were strictly movie and music related, it would’ve played better. It also bothered me that the filmmaker seems to imply that Houston became such a lost soul (or gay) because of these early traumas in her life, but if that’s the case, it’s not explored properly later in the film.
I was enthralled watching this, and part of me thought that all rising singers should watch it to avoid the pitfalls of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll lifestyle. But those in the music biz have been hearing about ODs (and the “27 Club”) forever, and it still hasn’t changed anything. In fact, before this movie started there was a trailer for “A Star is Born.” Whitney Houston’s life had a similar trajectory. She was a rising star, while her husband was on the downside of fame, and he had trouble dealing with it.
This is a powerful documentary that’s worth seeing whether you were a fan or not.
4 stars out of 5.