Most Whitney Houston fans love the late singer and icon primarily for one thing: her superhuman, once-in-a-lifetime vocal power. But when she graces the screen in the new biographical doc Whitney: Can I Be Me, which debuted Friday night on Showtime, other more human aspects come to light, rendering Houston all the more real — and her loss that much greater.
The diva — whose dreamy gaze and wispy speaking voice gave the impression of a calm and unflappable woman — was in truth very fragile, plagued by unthinkable pressures all around her, from those closest to her and ultimately from within herself as well. Here are six surprising takeaways from the documentary.
Much of Houston’s career was not up to her
When Houston came on the scene in the early ’80s, many were quick to realize they had a truly unprecedented talent on their hands. But record executives had a specific plan for the young singer, who they considered to be “so moldable,” and it essentially involved whitewashing her R&B and gospel roots. “Anything that was too ‘black-sounding’ was sent back to the studio,” music publicist Kenneth Reynolds, who worked with Houston early in her career, says in the film. The desired result was to create an African-American version of Joni Mitchell, as opposed to a female James Brown, he continues. Houston, of course, was capable of achieving both of these and more, but her initial pop-infused, radio-friendly successes caused derision within the black community — so much so that she was publicly booed at 1988’s second annual Soul Train Awards for purportedly denying her background.
Her parents were far from supportive, when it counted
Houston’s background and birthplace — Newark, New Jersey in the years leading up to the 1967 race riots that happened there — are highlighted, along with her parents Cissy and John, who were active members of the local church. In her own words, Houston describes what it’s like being raised by “God-fearing” people: “There’s a certain boundary that you couldn’t cross.” Cissy, in particular, is presented as a strict force within the family, and later, within her daughter’s career.
But that guidance didn’t help Whitney in her time of need: as she descended further into drug use and addiction later in her adult life, her mother admits, in an astonishing interview with Oprah Winfrey, being so angry that she “wanted to kill her” when she realized her daughter was high. Additionally, although it is gleaned over in the film, Houston’s father’s lawsuit against her toward the end of his life — in which he sought financial retribution from his own daughter — also proved to be a damaging element for Houston.
Houston may have found a place in today’s more accepting environment of sexuality and gender expression
One recurring character in Houston’s life who remained largely in the background — best friend, confidant, and de facto manager Robyn Crawford — is given much screen time in this doc, and the speculation over the level of intimacy in their relationship is left wide open. It is clear there was palpable tension between Crawford and Houston’s wild-child husband, rapper Bobby Brown, and it is safe to say some of that tension stemmed from a rivalry for Houston’s affections.
Another bombshell from Winfrey’s interview with Cissy Houston — which took place after her daughter’s 2012 death — reveals the fact that Houston’s sexuality was a point of contention within her closest circle, as well as in the media. When Winfrey asks if she would be upset or bothered if her daughter had been a lesbian, Cissy Houston responds, “Absolutely.”
While Whitney Houston passed away only five years ago, much has changed in the public sphere with regard to sexuality and how it’s perceived, which adds another layer to the irony of her death — perhaps, if she were still alive today, she would have found a way to address this lingering speculation, and in so doing, arrive at a new place within her own identity.
Kevin Costner is responsible for the a cappella opening of “I Will Always Love You”
For anyone who had a pair of ears in 1992, Whitney Houston’s cover of the Dolly Parton ballad was the track that coined the term “overplayed.” But the song, arguably Houston’s most famous, was initially intended to be much more traditional. David Foster, who acted as music producer on Houston’s romantic film The Bodyguard opposite Kevin Costner, remembers how he had planned to start the track with music playing right from the top. But in a meeting with Costner and Houston, the actor insisted that the song open with just her voice. At first, Foster was unconvinced, but when Houston started singing the opening bars right there in the meeting, he was quickly swayed. “It was like, Oh my god, are you kidding me, this is the most incredible thing I have ever seen,” Foster remembers thinking. And radios everywhere were never the same.
Many within Houston’s entourage tried to alert her, and others, to the fact there was a problem
As Houston’s career continued to soar, the internal pressures grew as well, including the financial burden she felt to keep her entourage afloat. But two members of her staff specifically tried to take a step back and let Houston, and those around her, know she needed to take a major break to address her behavior. One of her bodyguards, David Roberts, was with the singer for a large portion of her career in the late ’80s and ’90s, and he went as far as drafting legal documents which took note of Houston’s troubling behavior with regards to substance abuse. (Roberts felt incredibly close to Houston, going so far as to say that the film The Bodyguard encapsulated their relationship, minus any actual attempts on Houston’s life, or a sexual relationship between the two.)
Later, Houston’s hairstylist Ellin Lavar took advantage of her private moments with the star to tell her how serious she thought things were getting: “Not being a family member, or someone high enough in the food chain, I had no say-so. I could only talk to her in those moments when we were doing hair. And I could just tell her, ‘Whitney, you’re killing yourself. You’re gonna die, you have to stop.’”
Houston and late daughter Bobbi Kristina were victims of the stigma lingering around addiction
Some of the most riveting moments in this documentary involve Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who died in 2015 in a very similar way to her mother. Watching as Brown is trotted out on stage at 6 years old on tour with her mother, there’s a sense of impending doom, knowing that both mother and daughter would eventually succumb to addiction. As many key players emphasize throughout the doc, the silence and inaction that occurred in the face of these behaviors, on the part of everyone involved, is what ultimately contributed to their deaths.
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