I knew so little about the late Whitney Houston before sitting down to feast on Whitney, the new authorized documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald. I came away with a vision of a fragile, tormented soul who once sung like an angel. To witness footage of her from the late 1980s is to encounter someone truly magnetic, her youth radiating under the house lights as her voice washes over every pore of your body.
Houston was born in New Jersey, the offspring of a long-line of musical talent. Her mother — Cissy Houston — was a gifted singer in her own right, a session musician that sung back-up for the likes of Elvis Presley, Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin. She also taught her daughter everything there is to know.
While Houston's legacy would come to be overshadowed by years of excess and family tragedy, it will never detract from those early years. In fact there is little point in dwelling on Houston’s later years, suffice to say that her fall from grace is a prime example of what happens when you try to outrun the darkness. As Gary Houston, Whitney’s older brother, categorically states: “If you don’t deal with your problems, they come back to haunt you.”
I stumbled over the latest Popcast — a NY Times sponsored podcast dedicated to reviewing the mainstream musical landscape. It centres on the two recent documentaries that focus on the life and times of the late superstar — the other being Whitney: Can I Be Me an unauthorized accounting released last year. The talking heads on the podcast agreed that the latest documentary falls short in discussing Houston’s relationship to singing, lambasting Macdonald for inadvertently portraying her voice as a supernatural gift. While I could appreciate their perspective, I saw different.
To hear Houston sing in those early years is to behold something special. There is such humanity in her most remembered singles, an emotional resonance that rips your heart from your chest. While she never wrote her own music, Houston harnessed an ability to capture emotional portraits with raw clarity. For Houston, her voice was her superpower, a well-oiled gift that instilled hope and joy in millions of souls around the world. If only for a little while.