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‘Whitney’ reveals the down side of celebrity fame


The documentary "Whitney," which played locally at the Magic Lantern Theater, is screening on the streaming service Netflix. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We all want success. In whatever occupation we choose, we want to enjoy the rewards that come from doing a good job and being recognized for it.

But fame? The idea of fame sounds great, especially if you’re a Kardashian whose only talent is a penchant for self-absorption. But the reality of fame is that it cuts both ways: For everything it provides, it demands a price.

The list of celebrities who have endured rather than enjoyed fame is long. And those for whom fame proved to be a fatal trap is depressing indeed. Take the 27 Club, those celebrities who died at that tender age, a group that includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and several others.

All were done in by drugs or alcohol, or drugs andalcohol. And fame, in one way or another, affected all their lives negatively.

By contrast, Whitney Houston lived far past the age of 27. She was 48 when she died in February, 2012. But according to Kevin Macdonald’s documentary “Whitney,” her life ended up being as afflicted as any celebrity’s life ever has. And fame, in the end, did her more harm than good.

Born to Cissy Houston, a singer in her own right, and John Houston, an entertainment executive and sometimes political hustler, Whitney and her two brothers grew up mostly on their own, traded from one family member’s house to the next.

At some point during their teens, the Houston siblings began dabbling in drugs. And earlier, according to one of the brothers, during one of these home-stays both he and his sister were sexually molested by an older cousin.

When Whitney was in church, however, nothing seemed amiss. Even in her early teens, her singing displayed a talent that far surpassed her mother’s. And as she grew, her natural beauty not only earned her jobs as a model but it – and her voice – attracted the attention of recording executives such as Clive Davis

As Macdonald demonstrates, both through archival footage and through a number of interviews with Houston family members, friends, former employees and outside observers, Houston’s rise from that point was meteoric, boasting a peak that rivaled any singer’s in history, with seven consecutive No. 1 songs and more than 200 million records sold worldwide.

But as Macdonald shows also, Houston faced challenges that continually inflamed her inner emotional demons. Throughout the hit songs and concert tours, the various movie appearances – especially 1992’s “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner – she struggled: with the expectations of black audiences who saw her as too white, with members of her own family who wanted a cut of her fortune (her father sued her at one point for $100 million), with the separation from her longtime friend Robin Crawford and during her difficult 14-year marriage to the singer Bobby Brown.

The result was several years of isolation, aborted comebacks and intermittent drug relapses, culminating with a sad end in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom – all portrayed through lurid stories printed in supermarket tabloids.

Fame may not have killed Whitney Houston, but it didn’t save her either.

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