Monday, February 13, 2012

Her Name Was Not Susan: RIP Whitney Houston

Recently, a friend and I were discussing Duffy. Remember her? Yeah, I know, I'm not sure why we were discussing her either. My friend's theory was that Duffy had to star in a film about her, but I objected... can she act? Acting in a musical biopic is obviously more than just being able to replicate a voice, and Dusty Springfield is somebody who deserves a proper film made about her. This isn't Shania, ya know. But, whether she could do an admirable job or not wasn't even really the crux of my argument. No, it was more "Who wants to see Duffy act?" Is anybody really clamouring to see the transition from recording artist to actress of someone like Duffy? I highly doubt that.

I thought of this conversation again when trying to think of something to say about one of my favourite performers and singers, Whitney Houston. She's probably one of the last singers to ever transition from music to film in such a way that the two were intrinsically linked. Aaliyah attempted it with Romeo Must Die, before being cut off too soon, but these days you've got people like Rihanna making Battleship and you have to wonder "Why?" Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake seems to desperate to never record a song ever again that he can't even be bothered to pen a theme song to something like Friends with Benefits. Whitney Houston may not have been the greatest actor, but she was surely smart enough to know this. Rather than taking on something like The Rose or Lady Sings the Blues to wet her toes in the acting pool, she smartly took on the lead role in a pulpy, pop drama The Bodyguard. The role allowed her to not only capitalise on her image as one of the world's biggest celebrities, but also allowed her to indulge in her greatest talent of all: music. The soundtrack we all know (and most of us love) would go on to beat Purple Rain as the highest selling soundtrack recording of all time and won Grammys, Oscar nominations and made Dolly Parton a bucket load of money.

I remember watching the late, great Network Ten weekend morning music program, Video Hits, and week after week the top 30 was topped by Whitney's rendition of "I Will Always Love You". It is simply impossible to forget the image of Whitney on that bare stage and the magic close up that leads into the note before revealing her surrounded by snow. It's a good thing I loved the song at the time, and I still do. That she was able to make the song feel entirely new, despite being around for decades and even appearing on film before (performed by Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), is a testament to Houston's abilities as, perhaps, the finest vocalist of my lifetime.

Whitney shares a joke at the 66th Annual Academy Awards (features Bruce Springsteen so I couldn't resist!)

Then, of course, there are "I Have Nothing", "I Run To You", "Queen of the Night" and "I'm Every Woman" that are hard to resist in the Whitney musical canon. Whitney, in 1992, had successfully merged the two mediums in a way that has barely been achieved since. One was essential for the other and it's truly hard to tell whether the film was a success because of the music or vice versa. My knowledge of box office history may not be perfect, but I think it's true that The Bodyguard was one of the first films to improve upon its excellent domestic box office with a phenomenal international haul. By accepting a role as one of the biggest stars in the world, it's hard to argue that Whitney Houston did actually become the biggest of all. At least for 1992. She succeeded where others (Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, etc) failed with a blueprint that reads too perfect to be true.

That The Bodyguard isn't even a particularly good movie speaks volumes for the spectacular level of stardom that Whitney Houston had. It took her a restrained three years to make another film, but with 1995's Waiting to Exhale she managed to trump her Bodyguard success in every creative way. The film, directed by Forrest Whitaker, is plagued with issues (literary narration, oddly-filmed sex scenes, cheap opening credits), but it is the stronger film for it's forthright discussion of issues pertinent to women and African Americans. Houston's performance is better here than The Bodyguard, but that's probably because she has such a wonderfully open ensemble around her (Angela Bassett, Loretta Divine, Lela Rochon, Dennis Haysbert amongst the recognisable faces).

It was surely revolutionary idea at the time that a film with four black women front and centre was so successful, but it was and the box office success that came with its release was vital in at least somewhat altering Hollywood's perception. 1996 saw Set It Off and 1997 was Soul Food. These were some ten years before Tyler Perry was making movies so it seems particularly sad to see people questions her the merits for honouring her as an actor and not just simply as a singer. She didn't make many films, but these two were game changers in a lot of ways. Furthermore, watching This Means War recently where a woman's entire being is about finding the right man and then seeing Houston's character play out the way it does with Houston ending up as a happy, successful single woman is particularly refreshing.

The soundtrack was not only an enormous hit - not as big as The Bodyguard, but it was a more impressive album and still replicated those big Grammy nominations like Album of the Year - but is perhaps one of the greatest albums of the 1990s. Listening to it now, with it's songs by Houston, Toni Braxton, Mary J Blige, TLC, Brandy, Aretha Franklin, Chante Moore, Sonja Marie, Chaka Khan and more, it plays like definitive look at modern R&B and makes me pine for the time when singers voices did in fact mean more and were frequently set against such slinky, sexy melodies that were impossible to resist. En Vogue, Monica, Aaliyah, Skillz, 702 are others that I love that era. The Waiting to Exhale soundtrack is a stunning album and even more impressive when you think that every song was written by one man, Babyface. His sound is no longer popular, but Whitney's contribution to it is undeniable. Curiously, it failed to garner any Best Original Song nominations at the Oscars, but the quality of the music really is its own reward.

"Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" | "Count on Me" feat CeCe Winans

I haven't seen Whitney's third and (as of today) final big screen film, The Preacher's Wife. The soundtrack may not be as strong an effort, but it does, however, reflect the gospel origins of Houston's career. The same gospel origins that she was criticised for disowning in favour of a more pop sound that resulted in boos and jeers at a 1989 awards show. The same sort of pop and house style that is so prevalent today amongst musicians of all races. As I type this Chris Brown is performing at and winning Grammy awards, and I can't help but wonder what these people who criticised Houston in her hey day for doing nothing but trying to reach as many people with her voice as possible would make of the radically quick embrace that Brown received from the industry after nearly sending Rihanna into a coma with his fists. Houston has one last film in the can, the musical remake Sparkle with Jordin Sparks. I wasn't aware they had even filmed yet, but they have and it will be interesting to see how the studio handles it. At least the soundtrack will surely be divine.

Whitney Houston contributed more to cinema than most will give her credit for. She never was the best actress, but I think she would have gotten even better if she'd kept working and hadn't been derailed by personal and professional problems. Her films helped bridge a racial divide - lest we forget The Bodyguard featured an inter-racial romance that, if I recall, was nonchalant as you can get - and proved there was an audience for films like Waiting to Exhale that paved the way for the likes of Tyler Perry. Hollywood took notice.

And then, of course, there is the rest of her music career. Filled with brilliant pop and R&B, she had the ability to make a rather innocuous song like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" sour to unimaginable heights. Over the span of her debut and sophomore albums she had big ballads like "Saving All My Love For You", "All At Once", "Greatest Love of All" and "Didn't We Almost Have It All" that were punctuated by pulsating rhythmic club hits like "So Emotional", "How Will I Know" and "Love Will Save the Day". I'm Your Baby Tonight was like a vicious retort to those who had lamented her lack of so-called black music, and was greeted with fewer sales and less acclaim. Go figure. Three soundtracks later she released My Love is Your Love, arguably the finest album of her career. Sadly underrated, it produced some of her strongest singles and was fodder for, I think, the greatest remix ever made (that'd be the Thunderpuss mix of "It's Not Right, But It's Okay"). Subsequent albums Just Whitney and I Look To You were hit and miss, but for someone who only released five actual albums, her career was remarkably consistent. The same people who heaped scorn on her recent tour and for not being as in touch with her roots as they would prefer will hail her a legend. The rest of us, however, knew it all along.

To end, here are some of my favourite Whitney tunes. She certainly knew how to belt one out, didn't she? Just as memorable as her voice was the way she was styled. Who can forget the neon colours, massive hair and confetti bliss of the "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" clip, for instance? It was almost a certainly that we'd never get songs of this calibre again given the deterioration of her voice, but that doesn't make her death any less jarring. Her voice remains.

"It's Not Right, But It's Okay [Thunderpuss Remix]" | "When You Believe" (Live at Academy Awards with Mariah Carey)

"I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" | "I Will Always Love You"

"How Will I Know [Junior Vasquez Remix]" | "Step by Step" (backing vocals by Annie Lennox!)

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