Music

New Whitney Houston Documentary Is Not Right, But It's OK

Sweeping generalizations take the place of actual analysis or thoughtful narratives.

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Whitney Houston
'Can I Be Me,' Showtime

Can I Be Me. Showtime, Friday, August 25, 9 p.m.

One of the very first lines in Can I Be Me tells you just about everything you need to know about this Whitney Houston documentary: "Whitney Houston actually died from a broken heart."

There are many things to be learned from that sentence, and none of them has anything to do with either its literal significance (of which there is none; she drowned in a hotel bathtub after a drug overdose) or even its purported figurative significance. The crack in Houston's heart supposedly occurred when Houston was booed at the 1989 Soul Train awards because the audience didn't think her recordings sounded black enough.

If that's so, she was a dead woman walking for the next 23 years. Yet she still managed to put 28 more singles on the Billboard charts (including "I Will Always Love You," 14 weeks at No. 1), make a movie (The Bodyguard) that grossed over $400 million and win 19 additional Grammys. Clearly cardiovascular metabolism is overrated.

Then there's the source of that quote. It comes from Kevin Ammons, a former Houston bodyguard who wrote a splendidly salacious biography of the singer after leaving her employ. Among its highlights: The singer had brutal slapfights with her lesbian girlfriend, who had to be bribed with a Porsche to not act up at Houston's wedding to R&B singer Bobby Brown. Meanwhile, Houston's father-manager was soliciting a hitman to snuff the girlfriend. And on the other side of her bisexual romantic ledger, Houston arranged to have secret photos snapped of herself being diddled by NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham so she could leak them to the media and make her old boyfriend Eddie Murphy jealous.

Not one of these things is repeated in Can I Be Me, which strongly suggests that co-directors Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and Rudi Dolezal don't consider Ammons a reliable source on actual events, just a useful guy for poetically grand declarations about the nature of Houston's life. And that is very much the core of Can I Be Me: a lot of absurdly sweeping statements from people who've seen way too many episodes of Behind the Music.

One of them says the key to understanding Houston is that she was "from the street." Actually she grew up in middle-class New Jersey neighborhoods; her mother was a gospel singer, her father an entertainment executive, her half-brother an NBA player, and her cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick were pop stars.

Another insists that Houston was a civil-rights casualty, that before her "we did not have Beyonces and African-American female artists who can be at the top of the pop charts. … So she changed history for us, and she paid a price for it." That erases from musical history, among others, Diana Ross (five No. 1 hits on the Billboard pop charts), Aretha Franklin (13 records in the pop top 10) and even Houston's own cousin Dionne Warwick (10 in the top 10).

And then there are the members of Houston's entourage who say her marriage to the philandering Brown drove her nuts but "she didn't want to go against God and get a divorce." That conveniently ignores the fact that for the first seven years she was married to Brown, Houston was still involved with her girlfriend. And though I'm no theologian, I'd guess that in the conservative Baptist ranks from which Houston came, gay sex would have been regarded as way higher on God's hitbound-for-Hell list than divorce.

There's clearly an interesting story to be told about Houston, whose mezzo-soprano voice had the power of a pile-driver and the clarity of a bell and whose elegant beauty was gracing magazine covers as a model long before there were stories inside about her singing. She started out in the same gospel milieu as her mother, Cissy.

But from the very beginning there were signs of a schizoid divide in her personality; thank-you notes to God on the liner notes of her first album, but an ode to adultery among the tracks. By the end, she seemed to be systematically destroying everything she once was, even appearing on a reality show with her husband in which she bragged of her powerful defecatory abilities.

How that happened, and why, completely eludes the hopelessly unfocused Can I Be Me. Facts are glossed over or passed by in favor of faux-authoritative fulmination. Critical analysis or even narrative reporting of her musical vision and what shaped it are completely missing. (One exception: the revelation that the opening a capella verse of "I Will Always Love You," her monster hit from the Bodyguard soundtrack, was suggested not by any of her musical staff but co-star Kevin Costner.)

What Can I Be Me does have is considerable unseen concert footage from a planned but never made documentary of Houston's 1999 tour, the last before the crackup drew the curtains on her career. In one scene, there's a close-up of her face as she draws near the microphone. The drugs already have a hold on her; eyes puffy, wet hair in her eyes, she seems to be gathering her scattered faculties, and the outcome looks very much in doubt.

And then … that voice emerges from the wreckage, "I Will Always Love You," still strong enough to stop a truck. "Whitney's gift came from God," muses one of her backup singers. "So the only one who could mess it up was her." For once, the declaration rings true.

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  1. I just think it’s important for people to know I Will Always Love You was a Dolly Parton song first.

    Nothing against covers, just bothers me people don’t know that. It’s like how people don’t know Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World was a Nirvana cover.

      1. It’s true. I’ve also always loved this Guns & Roses song.

        1. I feel as though there is some joke here I’m not getting. Which would totally be a first.

    1. Or that “Respect” was originally Otis Redding. Very different song coming from a man.

      Or that “Hound Dog” was originally Big Momma Thornton. Very different song coming from a woman.

      Or that “War” was originally by The Temptations. Okay, that one’s not so different.

      “Dazed and Confused” was originally by Jake Holmes?

      That “Whole Lotta Love” was originally The Small Faces? NO! WAIT! Muddy Waters!

      Now my question for you is – how many links was that?

      1. Crazy was originally by Willie Nelson.

        As was Hello Walls.

        And Family Bible.

        And Night Shift.

        And Pretty Paper.

        And Funny How Time Slips Away.

        All were hits for others by the time Nelson had his first hit record.

          1. That one was originally done by Brenda Lee.

            Then Elvis.

            Willie’s version came later.

            1. Huh. Ironic.

      2. “Dazed and Confused” was originally by Jake Holmes?

        That “Whole Lotta Love” was originally The Small Faces? NO! WAIT! Muddy Waters!

        “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” originally by The Association.

        1. Everything was originally by Muddy Waters.

          Muddy Waters is the Tulpa of song origination.

    2. Does a song still count as a cover if the singer forgets the lyrics a couple of times because he’s having heroin withdrawals and bitching at his drummer the whole song? Or is that more of an homage?

      1. At some point it becomes an original composition.

        I’ve seen that happen at Dylan concerts with his own songs. Not sure what to call that . . .

    3. Perhaps most shockingly, “Istanbul/Not Constantinople” is not by They Might Be Giants.

    4. I just think it’s important for people to know I Will Always Love You was a Dolly Parton song first.

      And the delivery was based off of Linda Ronstadt’s cover of it.

    5. Or Harrison’s GOt My Mind Set on You is a cover(almost no one seems to know that).
      Or I love Rock N roll by Joan Jett(or a bunch of her other songs) are all covers but she is the one most identified for that song.

  2. The crack in Houston’s heart

    lol

    1. That’s cold.

      1. By now? Yeah, I would imagine so.

        1. And gooey.

  3. The crack in Houston’s heart supposedly occurred when Houston was booed at the 1989 Soul Train awards because the audience didn’t think her recordings sounded black enough.

    God I had forgotten that. It was the precursor to PC 1.0.

    1. It’s a sad thing.

      Parliament’s first album was intentionally a racial mix-up trying to break down musical boundaries. There’s even a country western song. They too were pilloried for being “not Black enough” and had to turn to pure funk in order to not drive away their audience.

      1. I don’t think that’s exactly right. Funkadelic continued to make music very much in that vein. And Parliament wasn’t entirely without its own sort of psychadelic kookiness

        I agree that the group was consciously trying to cross-genres and reach white audiences (i think clinton has said as much), but then so were lots of other black artists at the time. I think being a crossover act was more-welcomed – or less a basis for rejection by black audiences – in the early 70s than it was in the 1980s.

        1. I may have implied a starker point than I was intending.

          P-Funk certainly continued to aggressively challenge racial lines throughout the 70s – Mothership Connection comes to mind as one where Clinton said “We had put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House. I figured another place you wouldn’t think black people would be was in outer space. I was a big fan of Star Trek, so we did a thing with a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac, and we did all these James Brown-type grooves, but with street talk and ghetto slang.”

          And yes, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee, Richie Havens, and others were doing “crossover” around that same time in a way that didn’t seem to adversely impact them.

          To me, though, Osmium is just different from their later albums, and seems to me less self-consciously “Black,” and I feel like I read somewhere that Osmium just didn’t get much notice or gain much traction with either black or white audiences, and that this is why Clinton made the choice to go more dominantly funky.

          But this is a trend that definitely got much worse over the course of the late-80s, when the tone turned to “rap or you’re a race-traitor.”

          1. this is a trend that definitely got much worse over the course of the late-80s

            24-7 Spys, Bad Brains, Fishbone, Living Color, etc.

            i don’t really disagree. i just think there aren’t really very many genuine examples of black groups/artists that were *truly* punished for being ‘too white’ or marketing themselves as a crossover act. If you were *already* in a R+B/Rap market, and then you changed what you were doing to appeal to a wider audience…. maybe. De La got a little shit for their first record. Groups like Arrested Development or PM Dawn were mocked. But they sold shitloads of records and didn’t exactly suffer for their sins.

            1. I suppose it depends on whether you consider “punishment” as “taking shit from people” versus “making money,” and my Osmium example is perhaps a poor one, as that’s maybe not what’s actually going on there.

              In fairness one would have to observe that the artists that took the most shit were the ones that were wildly successful and had huge white fan bases, like Houston or Michael Jackson. NWA and Public Enemy didn’t get shit, but also didn’t sell as many records.

              But in point of pedantry, Bad Brains and Fishbone were hardly late 80s bands. I mean, yes, they were still around in the late 80s. but Bad Brains started as a jazz fusion band in the mid-70s, and Fishbone was a second-wave ska band that was part of the Two-Tone movement If Bad Brains and Fishbone are late-80s bands, so are XTC and The Specials.

              Living Color, okay – but they sort of stood out, no? I don’t know these 24-7 Spys of which you speak, so they are not relevant to my argument.

              So no – people weren’t really being destroyed or anything, but I feel like music racially polarized over the course of the 80s where it had been moving the opposite direction in the earlier 70s.

              1. Bad Brains and Fishbone were hardly late 80s bands.

                Bad Brains were basically unknown to the wider world until 1986 when they finally got on MTV. and Fishbone was v. similar…

                the 1988 album Truth and Soul brought Fishbone wide critical acclaim. With this album, the band also added left-leaning social commentary to their lyrics, covering important topics such as the breakup of families, early 1990s racism, fascism, nuclear war, and oppression in lower income housing projects. The album was highlighted by a hard rock-inspired version of Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Freddie’s Dead” from the film Super Fly. The music video, directed by Douglas Gayeton, became the band’s first hit on MTV.

                my point was just that if you feel the late 80s was somehow especially notable for intense racial polarization, there were nevertheless a surprising number of successful black bands doing “racially atypical” stuff / or ‘white’ music, and they were hardly labeled race-traitors.

                1. No – you’re right – I don’t think it was people like Bad Blood and Living Color who were being called race traitors, it was more people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.

                  And I feel like they were being called race traitors by people like NWA and Public Enemy, although I’ll confess to not having a source for that – I’m getting that more from people I personally knew, so maybe it was just their listeners who were saying those things.

                  At the same time, the mid-to-late 80s saw the rise of quite a lot of explicitly white supremacist music (at least locally in the LA area – but in fairness those bands largely didn’t get nationally famous), and I know that as a musician I felt a lot of pressure to play “white music” (whatever that means) instead of “black music.” Not that I was being told I had to play bluegrass, or anything, just that I shouldn’t play blues.

                  So while, yes, it’s not that there was no crossover music, or that the crossover music people were particularly demonized, it’s that a race consciousness developed in music in the mid-to-late-80s (alongside PC) that was less conscious before, where in certain quarters, at least, “properly exemplifying your race and not appropriating someone else’s” became a definite thing – at least in the LA area.

      2. also maybe relevant (*to this tangent at least);

        while that was their first LP under that name… Parliament started as a doo-wop group in the 60s in New Jersey, and had made a handful of singles in more traditional soul/R&B styles before leaning towards the psychedelic-funk idea. It wasn’t really that they ‘tried being weird/crossover’, then ‘had to turn to pure funk’ when it failed w/ black audiences (it didn’t, really)… if anything they doubled down on being weirder and weirder because it worked.

        side note: if you like early parliament stuff, i heavily recommend both the Politicians LP, and the 1974 Chairmen of the Board record, “The Skin I’m in

        1. Well – it seems to me like Clinton was striding right alongside Norman Whitfield, James Brown, and Sly Stone on that road from pop to psychedelic funk. Osmium is all over the place in a way that other albums at the time, even from “crossover” people, weren’t.

          The first Funkadelic album is still psychedelic and weird, but considerably more inclined to stay within the confines of funk and blues, and that was the album that harvested the original audience that then followed P-Funk’s weird course through the 70s.

          Me, I’m more of a 60s Motown guy, which I offer as my excuse for my fuzziness on P-Funk lore.

          1. Osmium is all over the place in a way that other albums at the time, even from “crossover” people, weren’t.

            meh. I don’t really want to belabor the point, but i collect exactly this type of music from exactly this period (funk/soul/psych of the late 60s/early 70s) and i could pull a half-dozen things off the shelf from the same year which weren’t at all very different. It wasn’t that what they were doing was an extreme novelty, it just that their record wasn’t very good. 🙂 Pretty much everyone in 1970 was trying to do some kind of Bitches Brew-esque , psych-crossover thing. Some of the best records of that period were when otherwise “Traditional” soul /R&B artists of the 1960s decided to try to get in on the act and put out some batshit weirdness. One of my favorites (and a general collectors favorite because of its use as sample-fodder) Or check out the records by many blues artists (e.g. freddy king, muddy waters, howlin wolf) in 70-71 which suddenly have fuzz-wah and echo and wacky arrangements. Parliament wasn’t being super-original with their first record… they were mostly trend-following. what made them different was that they stuck with it and evolved it into something very unique.

            1. Pretty much everyone in 1970 was trying to do some kind of Bitches Brew-esque , psych-crossover thing.

              Fair enough. Maybe I just don’t have enough context for Osmium – to me the golden age of Motown was 1964-1968, and my interest in where that stuff goes after that gets patchy (although I’m a big fan of latter-day Temptations – the funky stuff, not the easy-listening stuff). In the end I’m more of an Otis Redding guy than a George Clinton guy. Bitches Brew is also about where I lose interest in Miles Davis – I’ll take early-60s Mingus over that any day. And for 1968-72 I’m more interested in the Prog and Glam, honestly, because my roots are ultimately in punk and new wave.

              I’ll check out some that stuff, though – I always appreciate a new weird thing from the late-60s, early 70s.

              1. In the end I’m more of an Otis Redding guy than a George Clinton guy

                I’m both/all/and everything in between.

                If you’re a more straight-60s-soul guy, check out the Hot Wax and Invictus soul catalogues.

                Both were labels started by Holland + Dozier (the main songwriters for motown) when they left motown, and they put out dozens of singles which you’d probably recognize a handful of offhand. their stuff 68-72 is incredible. invictus released the first Funkadelic singles, like Red Hot Momma. The house band who played the backing tracks for most of their stuff were the people who put together the above-linked “Politicians” record, and the band-members from Funkadelic are the players on the above mentioned Chairmen of the Board record.

  4. Yet she still managed to put 28 more singles on the Billboard charts (including “I Will Always Love You,” 14 weeks at No. 1), make a movie (The Bodyguard) that grossed over $400 million and win 19 additional Grammys.

    Beeecause of white people! Point proven!

  5. “”The crack in Houston’s heart supposedly occurred when Houston was booed at the 1989 Soul Train awards because the audience didn’t think her recordings sounded black enough.””

    I don’t think that’s the kind of crack that killed her.

  6. New Whitney Houston Documentary Is Not Right, But It’s Okay

    Its like a zen koan designed to confuse Robby Soave

  7. Baby Boomers like erasing history. Nothing legitimate existed before they became adults.

    1. Except it’s even weirder because artists like Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick sold a fuckton of albums to young boomers.

      Whitney didn’t show up until they were approaching middle age.

  8. “That erases from musical history, among others, Diana Ross (five No. 1 hits on the Billboard pop charts), Aretha Franklin (13 records in the pop top 10) and even Houston’s own cousin Dionne Warwick (10 in the top 10).”

    In other words, it’s more BLM propaganda for millenials to sop up.

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