The rise and fall of Whitney Houston
There is a scene at the beginning of Whitney: Can I Be Me, Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s new documentary about Whitney Houston, that summarises all that was brilliant and beautiful, and all that was tragic and destructive in her life. It shows Houston onstage in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1999, one concert on what the film describes as the singer’s last successful world tour, and a turning point in her life.
Houston is seen singing the concluding verse of her signature song, I Will Always Love You – ‘I hope life treats you kindly, and I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of, and I wish you joy and happiness, but above all this, I wish you love, sweet love…’ It is the prelude, of course, to the song’s soaring climax. But at that moment, she pauses. The camera holds her face in tight focus. She blows out her cheeks, smiles and pumps her shoulders, drawing in breath, as if summoning the energy and inspiration for the final ascent. You can hear the audience cheering, urging her to break the tension, desperate for catharsis. She wipes the beads of perspiration from her face with a towel, then flicks her wrist, cueing the drummer to hit a single, gunshot beat, before her voice begins its extraordinary journey upwards and outwards on the single word ‘I…’ It soars, dips and swoops in a dazzling display of melisma and vocal gymnastics – ‘will always love you…’ An angel reborn as a diva.
This is the voice – and the song – that made Houston one of the most commercially successful female singers of all time. But one also notices the dark lines under her eyes, and the stoned, faraway look within them.
By 1999, Houston was already in the thrall of the drug problems that would ultimately destroy her career, and lead to her untimely death in 2012, at the age of 48.
‘Whitney was created by God, and Whitney’ s gift came from him,’ her friend and backing singer Sharlotte Gibson tells Broomfield, in what could stand as the singer’s epitaph, ‘so the only one who could mess it up was her.’
But as Can I Be Me illustrates vividly, there were many on the way who failed to prevent it.
In a career spanning 40 years, B room field has made documentaries about a range of subjects, from the Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and the Republican politician Sarah Palin, to the rap stars Biggie and Tupac, and the serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr, known as‘ the Grim Sleeper ’. B room field is best known for his confrontational style of reporting, often putting himself centre stage in his pursuit of the story. But
Can I Be Me is more conventional in structure, the story told through the voices of friends, musicians and associates of Houston, along with judiciously edited archive material and – the film’s real coup – remarkably candid footage of her 1999 tour, shot by Austrian documentary maker Dolezal.
Broomfield says his approach has always been to make films on subjects he knows little about, ‘but I’m interested in finding out more’, and Can I Be Me is no exception.
‘I probably knew no more than most people – that Whitney was an unbelievably talented and extraordinarily beautiful singer who ended up having a tragic end. And I guess I just really wondered what had happened.’
The thrust of the film is that Houston was someone who, almost from the outset, had little say in her own life, driven by an ambitious and controlling mother, moulded by a record business driven by the bottom line, dragged down by a selfdestructive husband and burdened by a retinue of family, friends and dependents.
‘When I first started the film,’ Broomfield says, ‘I thought perhaps she was going to turn out to be deeply unsympathetic; there was so much around about her being this diva, difficult, bad-tempered, cancelled everything… all that stuff. But when I started talking to people who were very close to her–her band members, her hairdresser, her bodyguard – a very different picture emerged of somebody who was endlessly generous, but was so overused by those around her. It was like she was owned by all these people.’
‘You gotta know who you are before you step into this business,’ Houston is seen saying in an inter view conducted in 1995, ‘because if you’re trying to find it you’ll probably wind up being somebody else that you probably don’t even like.’
Houston was born in Newark, New Jersey, a racial tinderbox of a cit y t hat in 1967 – when she was three – experienced one of the worst outbreaks of rioting and looting in modern American histor y, resulting in the deaths of 26 people.
Her mother, Cissy, was a gospel and session singer who, as a member of The Sweet Inspirations, sang backing vocals on hits by Aret ha Franklin and dozens of other ar tists. As a child, Houston – known to all by the nickname ‘Nippy’ – sang in her mother’s New Hope Baptist Church, modelling her technique on Cissy’s – a fact t hat Cissy was at pains to remind whoever asked. ‘I made her what she was,’ she would tell Oprah Winfrey in an interview following her daughter’s death. ‘She had been watching me in sessions and onstage for years, picking up pacing, breathing and microphone techniques, and then adding her own little nuances, too.
‘I made her what she was,’ Sissy told Oprah Winfrey
‘My son Michael used to joke with me about Nippy’s technique. “Ma,” he’d say, “Nippy should be in jail for stealing all your riffs and everything. You should sue her.”’ In the end, it would be Houston’s father, John, who became her business manager, who would do that.
At t he age of 19, Houston was sig ned to Arista Records, becoming the personal project of the company’s founder, Clive Davis, the canny producer and executive who had built the careers of Simon & Garfunkel, Aerosmith, Barry Manilow and countless others. Davis set out to make Houston a pop superstar by deliberately diluting the gospel and rhythm and blues influences in her music and ‘crossing her over’ to a white audience. The ‘whitewashing’ (in that ugly term) of black musicians is a familiar stor y in the music business. Black ar tists from Nat King Cole to Diana Ross had been moulded and groomed to appeal to a broader, white audience, but none quite so carefully, and calculatedly, as Whitney Houston.
According to Broomfield, Davis and his team met ever y week for two years planning her first album. Houston rarely joined them. Songs deemed too ‘black’-sounding were rejected. She was marketed as a sweet, smiling innocent, a part of musical royalty – Dionne Warwick was her cousin – her early life in Newark airbrushed out of the picture.
‘Whitney loved sing ing,’ Broomfield says, ‘and she was a great talent; but I don’t think she ever wanted the fame she got. She was just a very unpretentious person who basically liked to hang out in her jeans with friends and have a good time. The ambitious person was her mother. Whitney had the career that her mother had always wanted for herself.’
Released in 1985, Whitney Houston became the bestselling debut album by a woman in history, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide. Her second studio album, Whitney (1987), became the first album by a woman to debut at number one on the American albums chart.
As Can I Be Me makes clear, Houston would pave the way for a new generation of pop divas, from Mariah Carey to Beyoncé – none of whom could hold a candle to her vocal brilliance. But many in the black community saw her success as a betrayal of her roots. In 1989, at an awards ceremony for the black music television show Soul Train, Houston was booed – an incident that the sax player Kirk Whalum, who toured with her for seven years, describes as ‘devastating. I don’t think she ever recovered. It was one of those boxes that was checked when ultimately she perished, and it was a big one.’
It seems a curious twist of fate that it was on that same night that Houston met the R&B singer Bobby Brown for the first time. It seemed, on the face of it, an improbable match: Houston was the carefully groomed pop angel; Brown a preening self-styled bad boy who had once been arrested and fined under an anti-lewdness ordinance for his suggestive bumping and grinding onstage, and who at the age of 20 was already the father of two children by two different women.
He had grown up in the tough Roxbury projects of Boston, but there had been plenty of Bobby Browns in the neighbourhood where Houston grew up, players with swag. That was the appeal.
‘He was everything contrary to what her mother told her she should look for,’ says one friend in the film. ‘She said no, and Whitney dug her heels in and said, I’m going to do what I want to do, not what you want me to do – as I have done all my life.’
When Brown and Houston married in 1992, Vanity Fair described them as ‘the inverse of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’; like Rogers to Astaire, Brown gave a sexual charge to the pure image of Houston, while she g raced him with ‘a veneer of class’. The veneer would quickly wear thin.
The common assumption is that Brown was the principal culprit in Houston’s story, and that it was he who introduced her to drugs. But as the film shows, the seeds of her addiction were sown long before their marriage. Casual drug use was a part of the world in which Houston grew up, and her brother Michael would later admit that it was he who introduced her to cocaine. Brown’s poison of choice was alcohol.
In 1992, Houston starred in The Bodyguard. The soundtrack would provide her with the biggest hit of her career, I Will
Always Love You, which sold more than 12 million copies. Her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was born the following year. But her birth did nothing to al lay Houston’s growing dependence on drugs. On a world tour to promote the Body guard album, Houston and Brown fell into a spiral of codependence, spending days and nights in hotel rooms getting smashed.
Houston was now at the apex of a network of family, friends, and families of friends, many of whom worked for her and depended on her.
‘She was paying all the bills for everybody,’ Broomfield says. ‘Buying them cars, houses, medical bills, school fees.’ He estimates that in the years of her greatest success, Houston ran through some $230 million. ‘It’s true that some of that went on drugs, but nowhere near that much. The big money went on supporting other people’s lifestyles. And if you’re supporting 50 or 60 people, that’s a lot of money.’
Those who were in the best position to help her were also those who had the greatest investment in keeping her problems out of the public eye, and the show on the road.
David Roberts worked as Houston’s personal bodyguard from 1988 until 1995. (Timing notwithstanding, Roberts, a Welshman who had worked as a Scotland Yard royal-protection officer, was not the inspiration for The Bodyguard; the script was originally written in 1976, with Diana Ross in mind.) When he first met Houston, he tells me, she was the antithesis of ‘the stereotypical sex, drugs and rock’n’roll situation that prevailed in those days. That was not this woman at all.
‘She was sweet, she was articulate, she was shy; she made an effort to keep out of the spotlight as best she could, except when it came to appeasing those who demanded it of her.’ The arrival of Brown, Roberts believes, changed that. ‘If he had never been on the scene, I have every confidence you would be speaking to her now, not to me. When he came on the scene he really had nothing to offer: he was living on his reputation as “Bad Bobby Brown”, or whatever it was, and that manifested itself at all t imes. He would drink himself into a state of being sick every two days, and to make him feel comfortable she tried to maintain something similar, to make him feel at home when with her.’
Broomfield takes a more forg iv ing attitude to Brown. ‘I don’t think he was an evil person,’ he says. ‘I think he deeply loved Whitney and she deeply loved him. You understand in a heartbeat what they saw in each other. She could be herself, he could be himself. They adored each other, but they couldn’t get well around each other.’
For Roberts, the breaking point came in 1995, when Houston overdosed while filming Waiting To Exhale in Arizona, causing filming to be abandoned for a week. Houston’s throat doctor was summoned to ex a mine her a nd t hen inv ited Roberts to take a sightseeing flight over the Grand Canyon.
‘We got in a four-seater and for two hours he lambasted me over what I had allowed her to become… He left me in no doubt that someone had to do something. The time frame was eight months, to have an operation to remove nodules or whatever it was, otherwise her singing career would be over.’
Rober t s prepa red a n ex tensive repor t, chronicling t he heavy drug use of Houston, Brown and eight of her inner circle when on tour, recommending a complete overhaul of her staff and noting that those around her ‘are seemingly more concerned with the career of a superstar and her commercial global reputation and money-earning potential, than we are about her welfare and personal well-being.’ He submitted his report to Houston’s attorneys. ‘As a result, I was summoned to a meeting and told they were very grateful for all the services I had provided over the last seven-and-a-half years, but Miss Houston wasn’t going to be travelling internationally any more and therefore did not require anyone of my skill set, but be assured that should she change her mind and travel again it would be to me she would come. That, of course, was a kiss-off. I knew that it was never going to happen, and indeed it didn’t.’
Watching the film, one senses that if there was one person who might have saved Houston from herself, and from those around her, it was her close friend Robyn Crawford. The pair met as teenagers when both were working at a community centre in New Jersey. Houston was already per for ming i n shows wit h her mot her. ‘St ick wit h me,’ Crawford would later remember Houston telling her, ‘and I’ll take you around the world.’
They became inseparable. As Houston’s star rose, Crawford worked as her assistant and then creative director. Such was their closeness that there were rumours the pair were lovers. Houston, says one friend in the film, was likely bisexual, but at that time for a black woman – let alone a star of her stature – to have acknowledged a lesbian affair would have been ‘a no-no’.
Brow n deeply resented Crawford’s presence, and the two fought frequently. ‘Robyn was a big strong woman and quite clearly capable of taking care of herself,’ Broomfield s ays . ‘ She wiped t he f loor wit h Bobby a few times – literally beating him up – and David Rober ts, who had no time for Bobby Brown, just stood by a nd watched wit h great glee.’ Crawford’s name was conspicuously absent from the list of bad influences in Roberts’s report. He says she attempted to rein in Houston’s drinking and drug taking. ‘But any influence she did try to exercise was ridiculed by Bobby Brown. He poisoned Whitney totally towards Robyn Crawford.’
‘Robyn was t he angel on Whitney’s shoulder for many, many years,’ Broomfield says. ‘But she was under so much pressure from so many different sources. Cissy clearly hated her, because Robyn was in such a powerful position for so long. Whitney made Robyn the person who decided who got through to her or not. If Whitney didn’t want to talk to her mother – and she usually didn’t – or anybody else, Robyn would be blamed for it. Nobody wanted to blame Whitney for anything, because they were all dependent on her. In the end, it all just got too difficult for Robyn.’ Crawford left in 2000. She and Houston never spoke again. The film chronicles the last years of Houston’s life as a sad and protracted saga of increasingly wayward behaviour, cancelled concert appearances, tawdry family troubles and failed attempts at rehabilitation.
In 2000, she was invited to sing Over the Rainbow at the
Asked about her ‘biggest devil’, Houston said, ‘That would be me’
Oscars, but was dropped from the show after forgetting the words, then singing another song entirely, during rehearsals.
Two years later she was sued by her father’s management company, John Houston Entertainment, for alleged non-payment for help negotiating a new $100 million recording contract with Arista. The suit was filed by John Houston’s business partner, Kevin Skinner, a convicted drug dealer who had once been John’s driver, and who later claimed to have sold Whitney drugs. Can I Be Me shows footage of John Houston lying in a hospital bed, two months before his death, addressing his daughter: ‘You get your act together honey, and you pay me the money you owe me.’ (The lawsuit was dismissed in 2004, and Skinner was awarded nothing.)
‘The bad part about it is that it’s about money, and that really sucks,’ Houston told Diane Sawyer in an inter view, shor tly before her father’s death. ‘That hurts more than anything.’
In the same inter view, discussing Houston’s use over the years of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and pills, Sawyer asked, ‘If you had to name the devil, for you, the biggest devil among them…?’ Houston gave a rueful smile. ‘That would be me.’
In 2007 Houston and Brown divorced. In 2009 she set off on her first world tour in 10 years. Houston had been using crack cocaine, and her voice was so impaired that even when her band lowered the key in which her songs were sung she could not hit the high notes. ‘It was disastrous,’ Broomfield says. ‘Clive Davis didn’t want her to do it; he knew her voice had gone. But she insisted, because others were pushing her so hard because their lifestyle was being threatened.’
On 9 February, 2012, Houston met with Davis prior to a pre-grammy Awards party that Davis was hosting at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, and t hat evening gave what would be her last ever appearance, joining the singer Kelly Price onstage to sing Jesus Loves Me. Two days later, on the night of the party, Houston was found dead in the bath in her room at the Beverly Hilton. The coroner’s report ruled that she had accidentally drowned, with heart disease and cocaine use listed as contributing factors.
Just nine months after Houston’s death, her mother, Cissy, brother Gary and sister-in-law Pat, Houston’s former manager, featured in a reality TV show, The Houstons: On Our Own. Also taking part was 19-year-old Bobbi Kristina, who was shown drinking and stumbling in an inebriated fashion. Talking about her niece, Pat said, ‘I can’t see [Bobbi Kristina] fall by the wayside. No way, no how. Not gonna happen.’ In January 2015, in circumstances tragically mirroring the death of her mother, Bobbi Kristina was found unconscious in the bath at her home. Doctors placed her in a medically induced coma, but she was found to have irreversible brain damage. She died in July 2015 at the age of 22. An autopsy cited the ‘underlying cause’ of death as ‘immersion associated with drug intoxication’.
‘What upset me so much in the making of the film,’ Broomf ield says, ‘is t hat we a ll rat her fell in love wit h Whitney. Because she was such a kind person, because she was so funny, because she was such a sweet-hearted person basically, but she had real feelings of low esteem. It’s hard to t hink t hat someone so beautiful, so talented could be so uncertain and insecure and tough on herself, but she really was.’
Whitney: Can I Be Me was not, he goes on, an easy film to make. Davis declined to cooperate, as did Cissy, who is collaborating on a family-sanctioned film about her daughter. According to Broomfield, Whitney Houston’s estate, now run by Pat Houston, was against the project, and those whom he interviewed felt pressure not to take part. The estate tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent Rudi Dolezal using the 1999 footage.
It was a rumbling sense of anger against the people who had looked after Houston – or rather failed to do so – Broomfield says, that prompted those to whom he talked to speak to him.
‘When you inter view her friends you realise how much people loved her, and were so concerned that she be portrayed correctly. They felt she was so badly let down by people who were managing her – not just Clive Davis, but Cissy and the whole family. They were not putting Whitney first.’
After her death, Broomfield says, Houston’s clothes were sold off, and the house in Newark where she was born was sold recently for just $100,000. ‘You would think anybody in their r ight mind could have bought t he house, t ur ned it i nto museum, with all of Whitney’s clothes and awards. Instead they sold everything off and did these terrible reality shows. I think the people close to her were really upset by that.’ Not even death could save her from indignity. Last month, Bobby Brown appeared on the television show
Hollywood Medium, with Tyler Henry, a so-called ‘clairvoyant medium’ whose ‘gift’ seems to be particularly, and profitably, attuned to celebrities, living and deceased. In the course of the prog ramme, Henry claimed to have been contacted by Houston f rom t he ot her side (‘ I have a woman coming through…’), telling Brown that while drugs may have been ‘obviously cont r ibut ing factors’, it was her hear t t hat had killed her – and adding that she had been with her daughter at the time of Bobbi Kristina’s death: ‘I was there to hold her hand when she made her transition.’ Bobby Brown dabbed a tear from his eye. ‘Oh wow,’ he said. Whitney: Can I Be Me is released on Friday
whitney houston at home in new Jersey with her mother, cissy, father, John, and brothers, michael (far left) and gary
visiting michael Jackson at neverland with friends including robyn crawford (second from right)
With Bobby Brown and, pictured to her right, bodyguard David Roberts
Starring opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard
Posing with her trophy haul at the american music awards
Performing in New york with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina
During her My Love is Your Love world tour