The documentary Whitney about Whitney Houston’s life and legacy premiered at Cannes last night. It’s the second high-profile doc on Whitney Houston released in a year. I saw the first one, Whitney: Can I Be Me, at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto and I was left disappointed and pretty f-cking enraged by how much of the film focused on the salacious parts of Whitney’s life.
Whitney Houston’s life is a tale of talent and tragedy. I know you can’t tell her story without including both but Whitney’s entire legacy has been whittled down to jokes about crack and all the sad smut, ignoring her greatness. With each new documentary that comes out about the life of this woman whose music I still listen to daily, I hope that one of them will get it right. Whitney, directed by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald, looks like it just might be the one that strikes an appropriate balance and finds the nuance in Whitney Houston’s story. But after an epic new trailer was released (if you watch it and don’t SOB, where is your soul?) and after the Cannes premiere, the conversation today is still not about Whitney’s talent. Maybe it will never be and that’s just the sad reality but before I get into what the conversation is about today, let’s take a hard look at Whitney’s legacy.
The fact that Whitney Houston was the definitive singer of her generation (f-ck it, my generation too) and one of the most incredible talents to ever hit the pop charts is being erased. We talked about this last year when the New York Times podcast Still Processing devoted an entire episode to the injustice of how Whitney Houston’s music is remembered. One of the things they brought up is how Whitney’s talent is not upheld to the same standard as her male peers who battled similar personal issues.
I know this is something no one wants to talk about but Michael Jackson’s personal history is problematic as f-ck. And you can’t even question MJ’s legacy as a performer (with respect, Beyoncé is now the GOAT, come at me) without people losing their sh-t. Johnny Cash’s vices are romanticized and considered an integral part of his genius. He has been immortalized as country music’s bad boy and while his addictions are often discussed, they have never taken away from his legacy. Kurt Cobain too. Male artists get to be messy. They get to be flawed. Women, especially black women, do not.
Still Processing also pointed out the lack of respect for Whitney Houston on reputable ‘best of all-time’ catalogues. NPR’s list of 50 great voices in 2011 didn’t even include Whitney. LA Weekly’s list of the 20 best singers of all time doesn’t either. Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time put her at 34. THIRTY. FOUR. Behind Bono! If Bono is a better singer than Whitney Houston, Blake Lively is a better actress than Meryl Streep. No disrespect to Bono. A Consequence of Sound list from 2016 puts Whitney at number six and it’s the only one I could find where she broke the top ten. She fares a bit better on all-time lists that recognize women only but let me tell you that going through these lists was a soul-destroying experience. History is erasing Whitney Houston’s unparalleled voice, that searing, life-affirming, scrunch-up-your-face-when-you-listen-to-it, jaw-dropping VOICE. It breaks my heart.
The heartbreaking nature of Whitney Houston’s story is worsened by all of the above but it’s also compounded by the details of her self-destruction that are rarely discussed. Whitney is believed to have been in a relationship with her best friend Robin Crawford and many of her close friends and family testify that hiding her relationship with a woman was part of why Whitney self-medicated through drugs and alcohol. Variety’s review of Whitney from Cannes delves deep into why Whitney’s downfall seems inexplicable and because of that mystery, her death is still hard to accept.
Here’s the thing about Whitney Houston: She was so incandescent (the power-belting gospel-pop majesty of her voice, the radiance of her presence) that if you sat through nine documentaries about her, you’d probably experience, each time, what I did during the early scenes of “Whitney” — the hope that somehow, this time, the beautiful enraptured young singer in front of you will find a way to defeat her demons, that they won’t drag her down, that the story will turn out different.
I walked away from Whitney: Can I Be Me with a short list of who to blame for Whitney’s demons. There were all the people who claimed she wasn’t ‘black enough’ and booed her at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, a turning point in Whitney’s life and career. There was Cissy Houston, the overbearing, unkind mother who rejected any notion that her daughter could be bisexual, and Bobby Brown, the immature and reckless husband who enabled his wife’s addictions and let his insecurities tear her down.
Both Cissy and Bobby are interviewed in Whitney but the film reveals a shocking and gut-wrenching new allegation that points blame in the direction of a different family member, one who abused her as a child. Whitney alleges that Whitney Houston was molested by her cousin, the late Dee Dee Warwick. Vanity Fair calls the film’s revelation a “dark family secret” and it will undoubtedly be the headline-grabbing takeaway from this documentary. This admission (by Whitney’s aunt Mary Jones) may be a way to piece together the ‘why?’ of Whitney’s tragic demise and her alleged difficulty to come to terms with her sexuality. It’s also an important reminder that addiction and mental health are too often intertwined and that Whitney’s struggles are not something to joke about.
The one piece of levity to come from Whitney so far is the bit in the trailer when Whitney Houston DRAGS Paula Abdul.
“One thing, Paula Abdul ain’t sh-t. That girl is singing off-key on the record.”
Straight up, it’s hard to know which Paula Abdul record she’s talking about because this is an accurate statement about every single one. We also forget how funny Whitney Houston was.
I hope that this documentary and the stellar reviews coming out of Cannes give some closure to the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s life so we can focus on the talent and putting much-deserved respect back on her name.