Whitney Houston was the most modern singer featured on Barry Manilow’s wonderfully strange My Dream Duets, an album on which he reactivated deceased musicians using state-of-the-art technology and sang enraptured alongside them. He was asked whether Houston has the dubious credit of bringing melisma upon the world – that warbling, wobbling singing effect that gets instant applause on TV talent shows and has come to dominate popular music.
“No,” he said, and then words to this effect: Whitney is not to blame. She only sang like that when she’d earned it – on the final verse. Now, people do it as soon as they open their mouth. They call that singing.
Dolly Parton remarked that when she first heard Houston’s cover of Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You”, which sat at number one for many weeks in the 1990s, she knew it wasn’t her song any longer.
Houston’s music did not reflect or embody the tragedy that went on in her own life: she was not that kind of entertainer. As with George Michael, her music simply petered out as the tragedy took over.
Perhaps Nick Broomfield couldn’t get the rights to many songs for his new film, Whitney: Can I Be Me. That might explain his decision to lace the biopic with funereal strings and a repeated, solitary, bell-like note. But he didn’t have to start with a recording of the 911 call when her body was discovered in the bath, did he?
Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Amy Winehouse biopic was such a big hit that you can’t blame Broomfield, who has made other films about pop deaths, for looking for a similar story. All the parallels are here: the father who loves too selfishly. The loyal staffer who attempts the last, late interventions. The friends, used as voice-overs to save on that boring talking heads effect (Broomfield and boom are absent). The latter-day live footage selected to show emotional decline. And, of course, the boyfriend – Bobby Brown as Whitney’s Blake Fielder-Civil – a bad child who gets off rather lightly: someone points out that while he may have brought the drink to Whitney, she brought the drugs to him.
But for anyone who found the Winehouse film heavy-handed (me!) Can I Be Me is far worse for the sheer lack of agency it gives the person at its centre. Houston had her mother to thank for her career, her loved ones for her broken heart. And her voice? That was a gift from God, several people note – one that Whitney threw away. There are no musical insights here, no studio tales, no analysis at all of what she brought to her sessions and songs. (Though we do hear that the a cappella opening to “I Will Always Love You” was Kevin Costner’s idea!)
There are many threads that would have made a film on their own – Houston’s romantic relationship with her best friend, Robyn Crawford; the bodyguard (life meets art) who supplied written evidence of her drug use in an effort to save her; the way she was shaped for the white market and booed at the black Soul Train Music Awards (“one of the boxes that was checked on the way to her perishing”).
Would she have fared better in an age where smiling talk-show hosts don’t grill you aggressively about your lesbian lifestyle? Would she have benefited, in some strange way, from the therapeutic nature of the musical culture we now live in, where private pain is expected to find its way into your songs?
Houston was an emotional interviewee, spunky when she was young, sharp when she needed to be, crying when there was nothing else she could do. How strange to make a film about such a person yet turn them into an absence at the heart of it, in favour of a narrative that accentuates their powerlessness.
The female train wreck is a popular story for film-makers and there will be plenty more of these movies to come. But by failing to investigate properly the very thing Houston brought to the table – the music – the film frames her as something other than the pop star she was. Cinema is powerful like that – but isn’t music powerful, too? Wasn’t she? Can I Be Me? Guess not.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel