2 New Movies Spark Renewed Interest in Whitney Houston’s Life

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Like many premature celebrity deaths, controversy and conspiracy immediately enveloped Whitney Houston’s. The day that she passed away, Houston was scheduled to perform at Clive Davis’s annual pre-Grammy party, which still went on, four floors below the suite Houston was found in at The Beverly Hilton hours earlier.

Houston was an undeniably driven and gifted performer—in her prime, the archetypal singer with God-given talent. While Houston’s voice may have sounded heaven-sent, her reality was hardly divine, always darker and more complicated than she let on. A recovering addict with a long, much-chronicled history of drug and alcohol abuse when she drowned in a hotel bathtub, Houston died high, alone, and an icon.

Five years after her death, the singer is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Chris Perkel’s Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives opened last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, spotlighting the man who nurtured the careers of everyone from Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys to Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. Currently Sony Music’s chief creative officer, Davis will always remain most closely associated with Houston, however. The singer figures prominently and pivotally in the documentary, which closes with Davis’s decision to proceed with the 2012 pre-Grammy bash. Tellingly, it ends with Houston singing a live version of her 1985 hit, “Greatest Love of All.”

Houston is the subject of another Tribeca film, Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’, from Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield, the self-reflexively styled director of conspiracy docs like Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac. The film’s title refers to Houston’s early days in the company of, again, Davis, and her desire to make and sing her own kind of music—not simply what’s been chosen for her. Those choices, we learn, were made to appeal to a white record-buying audience—the same audience, who, like Houston’s black fans, would have probably raised an eyebrow at her long-rumored romance with best friend Robyn Crawford.

The film delves into the complexities of Houston’s personal life, including her estrangement from her father; her marriage to fellow addict Bobby Brown; and what might have been a precipitating factor in her eventual decline: getting booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards by its majority-black audience. ‘Can I Be Me’ highlights Houston’s many dichotomies: platinum-selling princess and bad boy-loving partier; Svengali-driven pop star and soulful R&B singer; someone who loves men and someone who loves men and women.

Though Dolezal and Broomfield lacked access to key players in Houston’s life—Davis, Crawford, and Brown among them—director Kevin Macdonald will have had the cooperation of Houston’s estate when he debuts another as-yet-untitled documentary about the singer, currently in production. Slated to feature archival footage and interviews with both friends and family, the film proceeded ahead despite directly competing with ‘Can I Be Me.’

While neither of the films featured at Tribeca has a release date as of press time, fans of the singer and her hit 1992 film, The Bodyguard, can get their fill with another diva by-proxy. Actress and Grammy nominee Deborah Cox will star as Houston’s Bodyguard character Rachel Marron in the film’s LA stage adaptation at the Pantages Theater, opening May 2.

Cox, who appeared on the single “Same Script, Different Cast” from Whitney: The Greatest Hits, has also recorded an album of songs that appear in the Broadway production, including “I’m Every Woman” and “I Will Always Love You.” Proving that all roads lead back to Davis though, it was he who signed Cox to her major-label debut in 1995.

Why the renewed interest in Houston’s life? For some, an exhilarating, unparalleled music catalog and short-but-sweet film career demand it. For others, it’s an interest—driven by awe, admiration, and empathy—that simply never waned.

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