The sadness of watching Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the late Whitney Houston last night. You might disagree but I think the single greatest gift a person can be born with is a voice. Voices like Whitney’s come once in a generation. You wish, like Streisand, that she had taken care of it so much better.
There was much I didn’t know about Whitney Houston’s career. Like Garland, she was a child prodigy. Like Diana Princess of Wales, she was world famous by the age of nineteen. Whitney was a construct of poor but ambitious parents and a record industry that saw in her a recording artist who could break out of R&B and be a pop superstar.
Looking at early footage of Whitney, she appears to be the sweetest, most wholesome and happy young girl. I remember one of the few genuinely carefree moments in my life prancing to I Wanna Dance With Somebody in a Minorcan nightclub as a teenager. Whitney sang about fun, love and optimism.
What we didn’t know was that the Houston family was as controlling as the Jacksons and that Whitney’s relationship with her right hand woman Robyn Crawford was probably intimate which concerned her church-going family. I didn’t know how much criticism came from the black community that Whitney had somehow sold out and forgotten her roots.
The tragedy was, of course, that she never did. It seems conclusive that Whitney Houston became addicted to notorious rapper Bobby Brown to give her credibility that she’d actually earned long before she fell for a very bad and manipulative man. What transpired after the marriage was a fight for Whitney Houston’s soul between Brown and Robyn Crawford.
The sadness in the documentary was seeing Whitney decline so sharply after her marriage to Brown. They seemed to be living in squalor in hotel bedrooms while on tour or totally manic pre and post show. Brown is invariably swaggering and basking in Whitney’s light while she appears slow, confused and seeing life in soft focus. The physical deterioration of Whitney’s looks and her voice are heartbreaking.
When Whitney made The Bodyguard and sang the best selling soundtrack of all time topped by I Will Always Love You the industry could comfortably have predicted a great career in movies. Instead her world tours with Brown in tow destroyed that precious gift. Her real bodyguard was fired for writing a report demanding that her family break the cycle of self-destruction and get her into rehab.
A lot of the footage for the documentary was taken for a backstage movie of a Whitney world tour in 1999. She’d bobbed her hair and made a comeback record prophetically called It’s Not Right But It’s Okay. There is endless film of Brown and Whitney falling out of nightclubs or she slumped in a dressing room sweating and shaking after giving her all onstage.
It was after this tour that Robyn walked away from Whitney Houston. To her credit, she’s never written a book and the same can’t be said of Whitney’s mother and Bobby Brown. With Robyn’s exit, the drugs sent Whitney into the downward spiral from which she would never recover.
Having been replaced to sing at the Academy Awards, Whitney appeared on a disastrous tribute to Michael Jackson looking skeletal. When asked on live television which drug was the biggest devil in her life, she replied ‘no, that’ll be me’. Her father died saying Whitney owed him money.
Whitney semi-retired and went into rehab. By now she was looking like Billie Holiday in the last months of her life. Still married to Brown, they had a daughter Bobbi. There was a godawful scene when she brought the child on stage during a stadium tour and the little kid was bewildered to say the least as her mother jumped around her fist pumping to the crowds.
There’s a poignant recording that Judy Garland made towards the end of her life saying bitterly that her fortune had been consumed by supporting everyone around her with n increasingly failing voice. Whitney tore through $250 million before her death in 2012. She’d been divorced from Brown since 2007 and had sought solace in drugs again.
Whitney Houston’s life ended on the night of the Grammy Awards where she was slated to appear. In a truly horrible postscript, her daughter was found dead like her mother in the bath aged twenty-two.
Whitney wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last talent to be extinguished by bad men and bad drugs. But did nobody see it coming in the earliest stages or intervene when it was obvious Whitney’s life was in danger?
Of the current crop of superstar lady singers, Madonna appears to be indestructible, Britney Spears crashed the car but survived and Gaga has her head screwed-on. You’d hope the people surrounding Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Beyonce will protect their assets as long as money is being made. But, then again, you’d have thought the same about Whitney Houston.