It was Grammys weekend 2012 and the mood in the Beverly Hilton was electric. The swanky Los Angeles hotel was buzzing ahead of the music industry’s biggest awards ceremony and an exclusive party hosted by Clive Davis, the legendary American executive who was the guiding hand behind some of the world’s biggest stars.
Among them had been Whitney Houston, the singer with a once-in-a-generation voice, a perfect vibrato and a range stretching from alto to soprano. By then, of course, despite record sales in excess of 200 million, she was as famous for her descent into drug-addled despair as she was for her worldwide No 1 hits I Will Always Love You and One Moment In Time.
But this, she had told friends, was a big night for her. She was well again, excited about her new music, a new acting role and her return to physical fitness. And she couldn’t wait to show off her metamorphosis at Davis’s hot-ticket party.
Houston’s publicist Lynne Volkman recalls what happened next. “I was about to get in the shower when I got a call to come to the fourth floor immediately. On my way there I was thinking what was the worst-case scenario? I rushed out of the elevator and said to security, “How is she?” And they replied, “She’s dead.”’
It was around 4pm on February 11, 2012. Inside the now taped-off Suite 434, Houston had been found, alone, floating face down in a bath full of scalding water. Drug paraphernalia littered the room. The cause of death would be given as drowning and the ‘effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use’. She was 48 years old.
It was a sordid end and also a mysterious one, leaving a series of unanswered questions. Who had supplied the drugs that killed her? Why had Houston, with apparently so much to live for, taken them? Could someone have saved her?
In fact, the only certainty at the time was that the woman who just a few years previously had starred opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard and thrilled with a string of hits including Saving All My Love For You and The Greatest Love Of All, was gone.
Now, film-maker Kevin Macdonald thinks he’s found some – though not all – of the answers. Whitney, directed by the Oscar-winning Scotsman, is a documentary that explores how a tall, shy, skinny teenager from New Jersey became the greatest pop diva of her day and then threw it all away as drugs ravaged not just her body but her voice too.
Over the course of some 70 interviews with those closest to Houston – including her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, and her cousin, Dionne Warwick – Macdonald uncovered a tangle of family secrets. Together they explain how Houston was never given the stability and strength she needed to sustain her career when it went stratospheric.
Her late father, John, who had become her manager, was skimming her funds. Her brothers Gary and Michael, both of whom were on her payroll, were chronic drug abusers who helped accelerate her own addictions. Her mother had an affair with the minister of the family church. And, most shocking of all, her cousin had sexually abused her.
Where Macdonald has not succeeded is in explaining her death. It’s not a failing of his work, rather a reflection of the chaotic nature of her passing. “I had four different people who I all caught out lying about what had happened at the end of Whitney’s life,’ the director reveals. ‘But I don’t think she was murdered, I have no evidence for that.”
The closest he comes to suggesting foul play is in the testimony of Houston’s assistant Mary Jones, who told him the floor of the bathroom where the star was discovered was sopping wet: ‘Somebody was in the room with her, had given her these drugs, and had found her drowned in the bath, switched off the taps and left the room,’ she says. She cannot, however, identify them.
Even if Whitney wasn’t murdered, she was definitely failed. One by one, Macdonald tracks down all the protagonists in the story of Houston’s life and death, and asks how they let her down.
He began with her closest family: her brothers. He reveals: “Gary and Michael grew up at the height of the crack and cocaine boom in New York. When Michael was 12 or 13, he was a mule taking drugs across the bridge from New Jersey to Manhattan on his bicycle – because the police wouldn’t stop kids. He’d earn $200 and thought, “Wow, this is the life.” Gary’s first drug experience was aged ten – he was given heroin by his cousin on a park bench. He passed out and his cousin just abandoned him there.”
As Gary confesses in the film: “Yeah, we took a lot of drugs every day”
The boys’ struggles continued into adulthood and they admit to bringing drugs into their sister’s world and going out to buy drugs for her when she was on tour.
It’s also Gary who eventually provides the stunning allegation at the heart of the documentary, revealing to Macdonald that he was sexually abused in childhood. The abuser, he claims, was his cousin Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne. And Dee Dee, he alleges, also abused Whitney.
The burden of managing her business without proper, impartial advisers saw Houston hire her father John as her manager, only to discover later that he was stealing from her. As Houston’s brother Gary says: “She found out about all the money he stole and cut him off.” John Houston retaliated with a lawsuit demanding £75 million from his daughter. It was thrown out of court, one of the many family catastrophes and betrayals that destroyed her equilibrium.
If the singer of the world’s biggest power ballads thought she might find an emotional shield from her family through love and marriage, she was mistaken. Bobby Brown is the ‘bad boy’ singer to whom she said ‘I do’ in 1992, only to have their marriage dogged by accusations of sexual assault and infidelity. They divorced in 2007.
In front of Macdonald’s cameras, Brown claims, surreally, that drugs had ‘nothing to do with this story’. This despite very public low-points such as an infamous 2002 prime-time interview in which the seemingly intoxicated singer proclaimed that ‘crack is whack’.
The documentary itself also includes troubling home-movie footage of a clearly high couple, patently failing their daughter Bobbi Kristina and setting her on the downward spiral to her own death. (The 22-year-old died in 2015, six months after being found unconscious in her bathtub, in an eerie echo of her mother’s demise.) Yet it does not hold Brown solely responsible.
Minor says: ‘I never saw Bobby verbally or physically abuse [Whitney], but he was a strong personality. And for any man, especially a black man, it’s emasculating to have the woman be the breadwinner, and people calling you Mr Houston rather than Mr Brown.’
Sussman agrees, saying: ‘I don’t blame Whitney’s drug addiction and death on him. I blame her for allowing him to bring her down.’
Dramatic and entertaining, Whitney reminds viewers of the glories of Houston’s voice and the film is a poignant and powerful portrait of an artist who helped define an era. When Whitney premiered in Cannes in May, the Houston family was expected to make a statement about the abuse revelations – but at the time of writing, nothing has appeared.
In the end, all concerned with its making share the hope of Lynne Volkman: that the film will, if not excuse or exonerate the behaviour that killed her, at least go some way to explaining it and help rehabilitate the memory of Whitney Houston.
“I hope after watching this, people are going to have more empathy toward Whitney,” says her former publicist, ‘and not think she was this foolish girl who squandered her life. I hope they know there was something going on in her, behind everything that explains it all.’
‘Whitney’ is already in cinema
Culled from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk
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