There are few happy moments in Whitney, the latest documentary to chronicle the remarkable talent and tragic life of Whitney Houston. Her peerless voice made her famous, but her personal life was unbelievably troubled – mired by drug use, exploitative family members who were at once dependent and controlling, tension over whether she catered too much to white listeners, prying questions about her sexual orientation and an abusive marriage. The music gets short shrift in this documentary, just as it did in last year’s Whitney: Can I Be Me; the focus is on the devastating drama that ultimately led to the death of one of pop’s greatest singers. But Whitney locates a new source for much of the pain and unhappiness in Houston’s life: the alleged sexual abuse by her cousin, the singer Dee Dee Warwick, when she was a child.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Kevin Macdonald-directed documentary.
1. Houston was allegedly abused by her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick.
Macdonald’s Whitney sets up the revelation of alleged child abuse early by asking Houston’s family friend and employee, Aunt Bae, about the quality of the singer’s childhood. “Nippy [Houston’s nickname] didn’t have anything bad in her childhood,” Bae replies.
Later in the film, another one of Houston’s former employees offers a very different assessment of Houston’s early years. “I couldn’t figure out why she would always be on my case about my daughter,” the employee says. “If we were doing a business trip, she never liked the idea of me leaving her behind. And then as mothers, we talked and she explained to me why. She knows my sister. My sister was molested at an early age. She looked up at me and says, ‘Mary, I was too. I was molested at a young age too. But it wasn’t a man, it was a women.’ She had tears in her eyes. She says, ‘Mommy doesn’t know the things we went through.'” Cissy Houston’s work in the Sweet Inspirations required her to be absent often; she left her children in the care of others, including Dee Dee Warwick, the alleged molester.
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“I think [Houston] was ashamed,” the singer’s former employee continues. “She would say, ‘I wonder did I do something to make her think I wanted her.’ I had to say, ‘Stop it, stop it. A predator is a predator.'”
2. Houston’s family allegedly wanted to hire a thug to “scare” away the singer’s confidante, Robyn Crawford.
Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford was the source of much tabloid speculation – were they close friends or were they lovers? Crawford does not participate in Whitney, just as she did not participate in last year’s Whitney: Can I Be Me. But in Whitney, figures close to the Houston family allege that the singer’s father hated Crawford – either due to homophobia or because she was a rival in his attempts to control Houston’s life – to the point where he contemplated hiring a thug to scare her. “He talked about it,” one associate says. “He said if he could, he would break them up, any way he can. He wanted somebody to scare her.”
“He refrained from that because you never know what the outcome is going to be when you send people like that to do something,” adds the singer’s brother, Gary Garland. “You just never know what’s gonna happen.” There’s no love lost between Garland and Crawford – he calls her “a nobody,” “an opportunist” and “a wannabe.” “I knew she was something that I didn’t want my sister to be involved with,” Garland continues. “It was evil; it was wicked.”
3. Houston was intensely competitive.
One of the illuminating videos unearthed by director Macdonald and his team shows Houston and her mother taking turns trashing the various artists competing with the singer for chart domination. “I’m pissed off – these people think it’s so damn easy,” Houston complains. “It’s starting to make you wonder how a song like [C+C Music Factory’s] ‘Things That Make You Go Hmmmm’ could be a hit, huh?” the singer’s mother replies.
The elder Houston adds that when she was trying to break into the music business in the Sixties, “it wasn’t so gimmicky … [people] wanted to hear singing.” This spurs Whitney to take a shot at another one of her competitors, Paula Abdul. “The girl is singing off-key on the record!” Houston declares. “What’s she got? She’s got an image that we all know ain’t even really true.”
4. Her recording of the national anthem for the Super Bowl was a one-take performance inspired by Marvin Gaye.
The occasional music-related insights in Whitney are welcome, even if they’re rare. Houston’s music director Rickey Minor remembers the vocalist preparing to sing the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. “She talked about Marvin Gaye and how he had done the National Anthem at the NBA All Star Game,” he remembers. “Marvin … had this drum machine, and he would just float in and out and sing however he felt at that moment. I think Whitney definitely saw that like, he was just free. So I said, I understand. If I give you one beat extra for each measure, it’s gonna allow you more freedom to hold the notes a little longer and have gospel and jazz flavorings.”
“This was during the Persian Gulf War, a patriotic time in this country,” Minor continues. “When I hand the music to the orchestra and they play it, they hate it. It’s dissonant. It’s sacrilegious. I sent her the recording and I never heard from her. A week before the Super Bowl, Whitney comes to town … I’m like, so, did you hear it? You ready? She says, no I haven’t listened to it yet. Just put it on baby. It’ll be fine … I push play. She sits there, eyes closed, listening. She says, alright, I got it. I roll the tape. And what the world heard was that first take.”
“She brought the spirit to it,” adds Babyface, who wrote several songs for Houston. “You go to the right church, even as a Jewish person, you might accept Jesus into your life.”
5. “I Will Always Love You” reached further than you thought it did.
Everyone knows “I Will Always Love You” was a smash. But few knew that Saddam Hussein used an Arabic version of the song as his reelection campaign theme. In Whitney, the producers also track down footage from England, where one woman was playing Houston’s hit so frequently that her neighbor took her to court, and a seven-day prison sentence was handed out. “Behind these walls, the row over a chart-topping hit goes on,” a local news reporter says, managing to keep a straight face.
6. The success of Bodyguard exacerbated relationship problems between Houston and husband Bobby Brown.
The tumultuous nature of Houston and Brown’s relationship has been documented at length. Whitney suggests that when Houston hit “the stratosphere” with The Bodyguard, that sent the relationship into a downward spiral – Brown only had a brief run on the charts as a solo act, effectively disappearing after 1993, and he could not handle the fact that his wife was so much more successful than him. “Bobby was jealous and he could not recognize that emotion,” one of Houston’s associates explains. “He was always now the plus one. For him, in a black man’s mind, it was tearing him up.” “She wanted to keep the marriage, and eventually she stepped down to lift him up,” another collaborator adds.
Houston attempted to boost Brown’s confidence by giving him additional responsibility. “She want to far as to be like, you can manage me, to give him leverage and make him feel important again,” an employee explains. “[But] that’s not where his heart was. He wanted to be on stage. He wanted to be on the forefront.”
7. Brown does not believe drugs played a part in Houston’s downfall and eventual death.
Houston’s brothers helped get the singer into drugs. “You’re Whitney’s brother; doors are open,” Michael Houston explains matter-of-factly. He still brags about his high tolerance – “[we did ] a lot [of drugs] every day. Shit that usually kills motherfuckers, and you survive it and keep rocking. Let’s just say Bobby was a lightweight when it came to motherfucking drugs. We used to pass Bobby by lapping him.”
His boastfulness here is surprising. Even more startlingly, Brown refuses to speak about the role that drugs played in his wife’s career. Whitney unearths a grim video from the Nineties where Houston and Brown, seemingly drugged out of their minds, take turns saying nasty things about the rapper Lil Kim. “I don’t want to talk about that,” Brown says to the Whitney director, when asked point blank about Houston’s drug habits. “That has nothing to do with this documentary or anything that I want to speak about. That’s not what killed her.”
8. Crawford, Brown and Houston’s father all battled for control over her career.
In Whitney, the second half of the Nineties plays as a power struggle inside the Houston camp. At least two of the major players, Bobby Brown and John Houston, do not appear to have Houston’s best interests at heart. But when Crawford, who seems to have the only level head in the bunch, delivers Houston an ultimatum – Brown or me, pick one – Houston responds by saying she’ll accept Crawford’s resignation.
Soon after, the film alleges that John and another unnamed associate begin to steal money from Houston. Most of Houston’s family was already on payroll; now they were leeching more from her. This wasn’t just a betrayal, though it certainly stung for that reason, too: Houston’s financial situation became so dire that she could not afford to finish a rehab program.
9. Houston found solace hanging out with Michael Jackson.
The extent of Houston’s loneliness is driven home by a tragic anecdote late in Whitney. “It’s hard to understand the isolation of that kind of tabloid fame,” one of Houston’s former employees says. “Michael Jackson would call her sometimes, and she would go over and sit with him in his hotel room, and they wouldn’t even say anything to each other. But they understand each other. They were two of the few people in the world who could understand what their circumstances were.”
10. Acting in Sparkle appeared to rejuvenate Houston.
There are few very few joyful moments in Whitney, especially in the years after the success of The Bodyguard. But according to some of Houston’s colleagues on the set for the 2012 movie Sparkle, which starred Houston alongside Jordin Sparks, the singer was genuinely happy while working on the film.
“She’s climbing out of a hole,” one colleague remembers. “It’s like, if this is what I have to do, it’s what I have to do. In the first rehearsal she looked terrible. She was bloated, slurring. Then she cleaned herself up. When she wasn’t working, she’d sit on set just to hang out with people. I think it was the joy of having a purpose – of being able to get up in the morning and know, you had a job, you had people who wanted to be around you, you were part of a community. I really saw her come back to life.”