Correction: This article originally stated that Whitney Houston’s 1985 album was the first album by a woman to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It was her second album, “Whitney,” which was released in 1987.
If my childhood had a soundtrack, it would be filled with the music of Whitney Houston.
Her career was well underway by the time I was born in 1990, but I learned about her through my mom and through watching her movies.
A new look at Houston’s life opens in theaters on Friday. “Whitney,” by director Kevin McDonald, paints a portrait of an icon who was extraordinarily talented, at times troubled, misunderstood and not always able to be her full self. Houston’s sister-in-law, Pat Houston, is one of the executive producers of the documentary. In contrast to previous documentaries on the singer’s life, this is the first one approved by her estate.
One of my first introductions to Houston came via the 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife” in which she starred alongside Denzel Washington and Courtney Vance. To this day, “I Believe In You and Me” is still one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
And then there’s Disney’s 1997 rendition of “Cinderella,” in which Houston graced the screen as Cinderella’s fairy godmother, draped in gold fabric and sparkles with a crown of cascading curls. I can remember 7-year-old me singing along to “Impossible" with my mom and wishing I had a fairy godmother of my own.
As an adult, I have a greater understanding of just how important it was for me to have seen Houston represented in such a regal way alongside Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg at such a young age.
“Whitney” follows last year’s documentary “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” and features candid interviews with the late singer’s family including her mother Cissy Houston, her brothers, ex- husband Bobby Brown, a family-friend known as “Aunt Bae,” former employees and music executive Clive Davis, among others.
Unlike the 2017 documentary this one comes with a shocking revelation. In the film, Houston’s personal assistant, Mary Jones, says that Houston told her that she was molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick as a child. Houston’s brother Gary alleges that he was also molested by Warwick, during an inteview.
It’s one of a few secrets revealed in the film.
Toward the start of “Whitney,” Houston’s iconic video for “How Will I Know” plays juxtaposed with footage of the chaos that ensued during the Newark, N.J., riots of 1967 (four years after she was born). The singer spent her early years in Newark as the youngest of three siblings.
One of the most compelling aspects of the documentary is its exploration of Houston’s public identity. The film explores how rumors circulated around her sexuality and how her father and mother tried to portray the image of a perfect family even after they’d divorced in 1990.
“They were the Cosbys of Dodd Street,” Aunt Bae says at one point in the film, referencing the East Orange, N.J., street the family resided on after they left Newark.
Following the release of her debut self-titled album in 1985, she was considered one the music industry’s greatest rising pop stars. In 1992, her role in “The Bodyguard” opposite Kevin Costner propelled her into a new realm of stardom as the soundtrack, featuring “I Will Always Love You,” became the bestselling soundtrack of all time.
Later in the film, a montage set to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” highlights moments in Houston’s career including several appearances at award shows, talk shows and a Coca-Cola commercial. I found myself unexpectedly emotional during this scene.
As her career soared, it would increasingly be marred by tabloids and scandal.
As the film depicts, speculations about Houston’s health and lifestyle began to swirl following her emaciated appearance at the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration in 2001. The notorious interview she had with Diane Sawyer a year later confirmed that Houston was engaging in drug use. Her talent became overshadowed by her troubles and she was often reduced to a punchline in pop culture.
McDonald provides three examples of times when Houston’s persona and drug addiction were ridiculed: footage of comedian Debra Wilson’s impressions of her on “Mad TV” and “American Dad” as well as Maya Rudolph’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live in 2002.
At one point in the documentary, Brown refuses to talk about her drug use.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Brown says. “That has nothing to do with this documentary or anything that I want to speak about.”
Houston and Brown married in 1992, and many immediately questioned their relationship. From his days as a member of New Edition, Brown had developed a reputation as a bad boy while Houston was viewed as America’s pop princess. Some even assumed Brown was responsible for Houston’s addiction. In the documentary, Houston’s brother, Michael, speaks about being the first person to introduce her to drugs.
“We graduated from marijuana together; she wanted to try it after I tried it, and we tried it,” he says in the film. “If anything was going to be done, I was going to be the one to show her.”
In 2012, Houston died at 48 from from accidental drowning and the effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use, as a toxicology report revealed.
The news broke my heart.
McDonald’s “Whitney” isn’t meant to explain Houston’s star power to viewers. Instead, it shines a greater light on who she was behind the scenes while also acknowledging the demons that ultimately destroyed her.