The tape deck in my mom’s forest green Ford Aerostar minivan ate a tape and never spit it out, so I spent my childhood listening to one album and one album only in the car: The Bodyguard soundtrack. Whitney Houston was no stranger to us at home either. I think my Mom had all her CDs, and our home was almost never without music, and therefore, rarely without an impromptu dance and singalong. It was very exciting when the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack came out but much less exciting when the movie did; my mother and I rented it from the local Blockbuster, not understanding what we were getting ourselves into. Sex scenes go on forever when you’re a kid watching them with your mom. FOREVER. Some part of me is still on that sectional sofa in our basement, stiffly watching, rapt, but trying to seem uninterested, and maybe a touch confused, for my mother’s benefit. And some part of her is still there too, trying to breathe normally and appear blase while secretly inching her hand toward the fast forward button on the remote.
Anyway. Whitney Houston. A luminescent talent that captured the whole world’s attention. She was a model, a singer, an actress, and an undeniably massive talent. But despite her fresh and innocent image, her success was often eclipsed by damaging headlines. Her marriage to Bobby Brown being a big one. And her drug use an unfortunate other.
This documentary explores the highest highs and lowest lows of her life and career. Featuring archival footage of Houston herself and lots of interviews with friends and family and those who knew her best, the message is often complicated and conflicting. Did she have a hard childhood? Yes and no. Her mother was also a professional singer who groomed her for a career in the industry. She proudly sang in the choir of her church – where her mother had an affair with the pastor, ultimately causing the collapse of her marriage and Whitney’s parents divorced, leaving her devastated. Whitney director Kevin Macdonald manages to find new ground, and to probe beyond the headlines.
There’s rare concert footage and resurrected recordings and plenty of joy, but the whole thing still feels a bit macabre. In life, her increasingly erratic behaviour tainted her image and her downfall felt, if not inevitable, then at least unsurprising. It’s a painful reminder of how little it takes to extinguish even the brightest of lights.