Kevin MacDonald’s new Whitney Houston documentary, Whitney, hit cinemas on July 6. Unlike previous films about the late legend, his film has been approved by her estate, and features interviews with key family members, close friends, and members of her team. As a result, the documentary doesn’t just retread the tragic circumstances surrounding Whitney Houston’s struggles with drug addiction, her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown, and her untimely death in 2012. Along the way, her inner circle reveal some brand new pieces of information, and most will come as a surprise even to the biggest Whitney superfan.
From Whitney’s biggest hit causing neighbourly disputes in Northern England, to some scathing critiques of her chart-topping contemporaries from the singer herself, here are the five most surprising things we learned from Whitney.
Her music had some… surprising consequences
In 1992 Whitney Houston made her big screen debut, starring as the aloof superstar Rachel Marron opposite Kevin Costner. The Bodyguard would go onto become the second biggest box office hit of the year. Following Whitney’s lead role in the romantic thriller, she levelled up to a new, unprecedented level of stardom, and her rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ recorded for the film – originally by Dolly Parton – became her signature song. Even today, it holds the record for the best selling song by a female solo artist in history. Rumour has it that when Dolly first heard it on the radio, she almost crashed her car in surprise.
While a vast portion of Whitney focuses on the late star’s immediate circle, it also contextualises her within the events of her time; Kevin Costner, for example, highlights the enormous significance of a black woman playing the lead love interest role in a Hollywood film. The documentary also examines some of the more surprising after-effects of The Bodyguard’s cultural impact, and it turns out that ‘I Will Always Love You’ is so divisive that somebody went to jail over it.
In October ‘92, a 20-year old woman from Middlesbrough was sentenced to seven days in jail after she played the monster hit all day, every day, with the volume cranked up to the maximum. Her neighbours – whose brief appearance in Whitney provides the biggest laugh – claim with straight faces that the whole experience was straight-up “psychological torture”.
Whitney didn’t like chart music (or Paula Abdul) very much
Of course Whitney wasn’t the only chart-dominating artist of her time, and duelling for the top spot on a weekly basis, it figures that she held some strong views when it came to her competitors. Filmed during the peak of Whitney Houston’s global fame, a candid piece of chatter captured on a handheld camera reveals what the star thought of some of her chart-topping contemporaries. Spoiler: she wasn’t very impressed.
Halfway through a conversation with her mother Cissy Houston as they’re discussing the intricacies of fame, current pop and their dislike of “fad music”, Whitney comes out with a cracker. “People think it’s so easy, and it’s not.” she tells Cissy. “One thing, Paula Abdul ain’t shit! That girl is singing off-key on the record.” The pair also poke fun at Janet Jackson in the segment.
The star’s sexuality was “fluid”
Throughout her career, Whitney Houston was followed around by constant tabloid speculation, and during one particularly vicious spell of coverage, the newstands were filled with cruelly-pitched headlines asserting that she was in a lesbian relationship with her assistant Robyn Crawford. At the time, the pair – who shared a flat together in North Jersey – shrugged off the rumours. “People see Robyn with me, and they draw their own conclusions,” Whitney told Time Magazine in 1987. “Anyway, whose business is it if you’re gay or like dogs? What others do shouldn’t matter. Let people talk.” Whitney is also shown speaking about the rumours in MacDonald’s documentary, saying “The only gayness I feel is when I’m happy. That’s it”. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the singer’s publicists issued over 40 statements denying the relationship.
The documentary digs out a variety of headlines published at the time for inspection and also makes steps towards unearthing the truth, interviewing the singer’s friends and family about the topic. Robyn Crawford declined to appear. Several of Whitney Houston’s friends talk about the alleged relationship supportively, and claim that she may have married Bobby Brown to put the rumours around her sexuality to bed. Rickey Minor – the artist’s long-time musical director – describes Whitney as “fluid”, while her former stylist Ellin LaVar adds that her marriage to Bobby Brown was an attempt to do what was “expected” of her. “Robyn was her safety net,” adds another friend.
However, Whitney Houston’s half brother Gary Garland-Houston reveals a strain of homophobia within the late singer’s family. “She was a nobody,” he says speaking about Robyn Crawford. He goes on to call her “evil, wicked” and adds “she was somebody I didn’t want my sister involved with”. The documentary later claims that, at the height of Whitney’s drug abuse struggles, Robyn gave her an ultimatum; me or him. A friend in the film claims that Whitney replied saying “I accept your resignation”.
That iconic rendition of Star Spangled Banner? Whitney didn’t rehearse
Ask many Whitney fans for their most goosebump-inducing musical moment, and there’s a fair chance that many of them will pick her rendition of the US National Anthem. Performed at Tampa Stadium for the 1991 Super Bowl, America had just entered the Gulf War. “We needed hope to bring our babies home,” said Whitney of the performance, “and that’s what it was about for me, that what I felt when I sang that song.”
In the Whitney documentary her musical director Rickey Minor discusses how the iconic moment came about, detailing how Whitney was inspired by Marvin Gaye’s own version in ‘83. As a result, he changed the tempo from a waltz, to a classic 4/4 beat to allow her more time to breathe and experiment with melody. The orchestra hated it, Minor claims, saying they felt it was “dissonant.” He also claims that televised performance of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was also Whitney’s first ever run through.
The film unearths new troubling revelations about her past
Much of Whitney retreads a similar narrative territory to the 2016 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me; though in the case of this new, estate-approved film, it has the advantage of direct confirmation from Whitney’s close inner circle. However, the documentary also unearths one troubling new detail about the late singer’s life, with several interviewees alleging that she was abused as a child by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick. The allegations are made by Houston’s assistant Mary Jones, as well as her half-brother, the former NBA player Gary Garland-Houston. He also says that he was also abused as a child by Warwick.