THE singer Whitney Houston made millions of dollars, had more consecutive number ones in the charts than The Beatles, and yet still wasn’t free to be herself. She died accidentally from a mixture of drugs and ill-health at 48 years of age.
A new documentary, Whitney (Cert.15), bears the subtitle ”Can I Be Me”. The lack of a question mark suggests that the singer never managed to find an answer. This was not for the want of trying, though. It’s the sad, if predictable, tale of world-famous artists looking all too often in the wrong places — drugs, drink, turbulent relationships. The difference with this one is that from the beginning to the end of the film, Houston is in conversation with God.
She was brought up in a black middle-class family in New Jersey. Gospel music was second nature to her. Her mother, Cissy, who had a singing career of her own, was a trustee at the church where the family worshipped. From an early age, Whitney was soloist with a Baptist choir. Later in life, she is on record as saying: “The memories of singing in church are the ones I cherish most.”
During her time at a Roman Catholic high school, she was already doing nightclub spots alongside Cissy. By her early twenties, she had become one of the world’s most famous singers, with hits like “The Greatest Love of All” and “I Will Always Love You”.
The director of Whitney is Nick Broomfield, a British film-maker with a string of award-winning documentaries to his name. He has curated a wealth of film footage from home movies to television programmes that chronicled Houston’s life until her untimely death in 2012. There are also interviews with a host of family, friends, and colleagues. Time and again, it is clear that Christian faith played a significant part in the performer’s life, not only in her childhood, but throughout her adult years. There is barely a scene when she isn’t sporting a crucifix around her neck or on earrings.
As she strives to make sense of it all, we see her at prayer. “God, you’re the only one who understands”, she cries, “and accepts me as I am.” Everybody wants a piece of her, whether it be adoring fans, family members, whom she employs, or entertainment companies that want to maximise profits from her output. She may well ask: “Can I be me rather than this social construct?”
Part of her anguish stems from recognising, as several of those around her do, that her voice is “a God thing”. There is an almost Gethsemane feeling as she wishes that this cup be taken away from her. But to do so would, she believed, be letting God down. She certainly considered that she let herself down. When asked on television which of the various drugs was her worst demon, she replied “The biggest devil is me.”
One leaves this film, however, feeling a degree of penitence. Her personal bodyguard, David Roberts, a former security officer at Buckingham Palace, declares that we all contributed to her pain and death. If so, then this film is as good a demonstration as any of human solidarity in sin.