I just saw the new documentary on Whitney Houston simply called Whitney. At times I cried inside as I soaked up the new footage from her life. It was done through participatory interviews of those who knew her best such as her mother Cissy Houston, her two brothers, hairstylist, aunt, personal assistants and various record producers. It focuses more on who she was before she became a star and who she was when the world was not looking.
Nippy, as she was affectionately known, was a young girl from the inner city of Newark, New Jersey. Her mother was often on the road singing backup for icons such as Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. Dionne Warwick was her aunt so she had a tall order placed on her shoulders from birth.
The movie begins with the interviewer speaking to Cissy Houston from a church pew where Whitney got her start. She stated that she taught Nippy to sing from her head, heart and gut. Well, it worked. She and her brothers hated to see their mother hit the road and they were left behind to stay with other families. Sometimes they were in good hands and sometimes they were not, as life goes.
This movie shares a well-tucked away secret about Whitney and her good friend Robyn. They met as young teens and became the best of friends and moved in together when Whitney was 18. Their relationship was questionable and quite unacceptable for the image that others wanted Whitney to portray as a rising star.
Whitney was discovered and though Robyn stayed in her employ, her presence caused the disapproval of her family and her new handlers. Yet, they were so close that Robyn was the only one who could get Nippy to behave and take off her shoes of rebellion.
Thus, the divided soul began to widen as Nippy had to become Whitney Houston who was this young, innocent fresh talent that was entering upon the world stage. Nippy, the inner city girl with sass had to be silenced along her inner city jargon. The new Whitney wore long gowns of grace and elegance and her love for Robyn had to be snuffed out as well.
Then, enters bad boy Bobby Brown on stage left. As others said in the film, Bobby Brown was more like her than the world realized. He was also an inner city kid and reminded her of her brothers. He got to know the real Nippy and he made her laugh. With him, she could please the world and be married to a man with a family on the horizon.
The movie shows footage from her wedding day with Bobby Brown He was crying because he probably could not believe that he had landed one of the world’s greatest talents. But what I will not forget is how Robyn looked in her eyes while she was in her wedding gown. It was as if she was saying, “Okay if this is what you want to do, I wish you the best.”
It was said that Bobby and Robyn would actually fight and vie for Nippy’s attention. Bobby vowed to kill Robyn and bury her in his backyard. Hence, the heart and chasm of Nippy’s heart widened and the drugs poured in to numb the pain of trying to live up to others’ expectations. Robyn finally left Whitney’s employ around 2000 and it was shortly afterwards when Whitney was seen looking skeletal in 2001.
We know what toil the world tours, the interviews and the abusive marriage took on her. But the pressure to maintain this image of someone who was so unlike the real Nippy proved to be too much. If you look at any of Whitney’s interviews, you can hear the real Nippy from the inner city trying to break free.
There is one really memorable scene where Whitney is having a monologue with herself saying that Nippy cannot find Whitney or that Whitney can find Nippy. It made me think of the book called Divided Soul about Marvin Gaye. I thought of all of the artists who have changed their names and taken on some false persona to satisfy someone else’s creation. Think about Marilyn Monroe who was once Norma Jean.
As in all falsity, it all comes crashing down and those who loved these stars while they were riding high quickly turn and become their worst critics. During this movie, it was revealed that Whitney would go and visit Michael Jackson when she was feeling overwhelmed. They would sit for hours and not say a word because it was a wordless understanding of the demands of being a megastar.
I looked at her last interview with Oprah after seeing the movie and she said that on some days, she just wanted to put on some jeans and be herself. But the world would have none of that. Some even referred to her as a national treasure as though she was not an individual with personal dreams and dilemmas.
This documentary delves into the inside of a woman’s soul who fought the good fight as she graciously shared her gift with the world. Her mother told her in this film that “God had laid His hands on her.” She gave what she had and I am thankful for Kevin McDonald’s approach to her life. We know of her accomplishments, but this film shows all that Nippy sacrificed to belt out those iron-clad lungs that gave us all goosebumps.
Push play and listen to one of Whitney’s last songs as she cleaves to her faith and sings I Look to You!
Lynn M. July 7, 2018