By now you’re most likely aware that a new documentary on the life of Whitney Houston opened in cinemas across the world recently, and has received consistently solid reviews. Directed by award-winning storyteller, Kevin Macdonald, the doc simply titled ‘Whitney’ offers the viewer unprecedented access to the late, iconic singer who was one of the most gifted, fascinating and troubled public figures in recent history. Whitney’s life story is pretty well-documented: she started singing in the Baptist church as a young girl, was discovered by record mogul Clive Davis who fast tracked her to record-breaking chart success, eventually succumbed to a devastating battle with drug addiction that robbed her of her life at the age of 48. However, despite the fact that we all watched this tragic tale unfurl in front of our very eyes, the ‘Whitney’ documentary colours in the grey areas, and presents a humanised version of the legend, showcasing her challenges and complexities but also her brilliance. Here are 5 standout moments from the two-hour documentary.
1. Nippy always put family first.
Whitney grew up in a close-knit family from New Jersey, which comprised of her mother, father and two older brothers. As the baby of the Houston clan, Whitney (affectionately nicknamed Nippy) was spoilt and pampered and all those around her recognised her talent and knew she was destined for greatness. When she catapulted to fame in the early ’80s, we learn through the documentary that she enlisted the help of her family to help run the business of being Whitney Houston, adding them all to payroll, and also paying them pretty handsomely for jobs that ranged from the super important (her Dad was her manager) to the more menial (her brother Michael was an occasional backing singer/bodyguard/handyman). This was a practice that would continue throughout her entire life, sometimes to her detriment as some believe that her family failed to act quickly to curb her drug addiction because, well, she was the boss .
2. Her beauty was breathtaking
One of the many tragedies of Whitney’s life is the very public free fall from grace. The younger generation will only be cognizant of her more troubled years, which is illuminated in painful detail in the documentary, where when her life was spiralling out of control, rather than support her, Whitney became a pop culture punching bag, often the butt of jokes for many talk-show hosts and adult comedies. During her heyday, Whitney was breathtakingly beautiful. There is one particular scene in ‘Whitney’ which shows the singer performing in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, post-Apartheid. She’s dressed head to toe in a mustard yellow figure-hugging, floor length gown with matching jewel-encrusted headdress. She’s beauty personified. Existing at a time when black female superstars were few and far between on a global scale, her presence was validating and necessary.
3. Those questioning her blackness caused great pain!
During the ’80s, to obtain megastar status artists had to erase any overtly ‘black’ signifiers whether that be music, hairstyles, fashion or the way one spoke. In Whitney’s case, her music ranged from safe, middle-of-the-road ballads to frothy, bubble gum pop uptempo tracks. As her star began to rise, she faced accusations of being a ‘sell out’ or not black enough from the African American community. This tension reached a critical point at the 1988 Soul Train Awards when Whitney was booed every time her name was mentioned, much to the devastation of the sensitive singer. We learn throughout the documentary that this incident marked a turning point for Whitney, who contrary to what the general public thought, was indeed proud of her blackness and African American heritage. Coincidentally, this was the fateful night that she met Bobbi Brown, and his unapologetic, ‘take me as a I am’ demeanour rubbed off on Whitney who began to assert herself, taking control of her career, most notably injecting more soul and R&B in her music.
4. Just like us, she loved a good bitchin’ session with her mum!
The most heartwarming scenes in the documentary are Whitney backstage during the early-peak years of her career, hanging out with her employees and family members. One particular scene which stood out was the singer lounging on a couch bemoaning the state of the music scene, which was beginning to become saturated with gimmicky music and image-based singers with very little substance. “One thing. Paula Abdul ain’t shit“, she utters indignantly to her mother Cissy who at the time was off camera. Adding her two cents to the dialogue, Cissy then has a similar dig at Janet Jackson before the pair remember the cameras are rolling and begin to crack up. In those few minutes, Whitney and Cissy became us. We can all relate to the unique bond that exists between mother and daughter, where both parties feel comfortable enough with each other to let it all out, unfiltered.
5. She really TRIED to get help!
The well-trodden narrative is that Whitney was on a path of self-destruction when in the grips of drug addiction, and made little to no effort to get help. The Whitney documentary counters this common belief, outlining the many times the star entered rehab facilities and did her best to get cleaned up. Unfortunately the pressures of the industry eventually took its toll, as we all know. The documentary also sensitively handles Bobbi Kristina’s similar tragic fate, we glean an understanding that Whitney unsurprisingly fell short as a mother, but the love was always there.
Whitney is out now at cinemas nationwide. For more information visit whitney.film