A Valentine for Whitney: We Will Always Love You
The first time I heard Whitney Houston’s voice, the song playing on an FM radio station was “You Give Good Love.” The year was 1985; the season, late spring. As a young woman barely out of her teens, I found Whitney’s sweet but throaty, gospel-trained alto the perfect vehicle for depicting the awe and beauty of falling in love, and the apprehension, courage and responsibility of being in love.
My paltry paycheck couldn’t come sooner. Once back home from the record store, with the Whitney Houston album spinning loveliness from my turntable, I couldn’t get over the contradiction between the jacket’s front and back covers. On the front was a close-up of a fresh-faced girl like me wearing a pastel gown like a goddess of virtue and, flipped, was a full-length image of a leggy woman in a stunning white swimsuit posing like a sensuous warrior at the ocean’s edge.
At the age I was then, Whitney’s songbird voice spirited me through my academic weekdays and crisp, green weekends. In those days of firsts — pink-frosted feathery haircuts, lipstick, kisses, miniskirts, lingerie, nightclubs, concerts, and forbidden invitations — life transformed into rainbow colors as soon as the needle dropped to the vinyl or the chunky “Play” button was pressed on the Walkman.
When the straight, popular girls (read: big-busted skanks) would snatch away the straight and bisexual normal boys, the only guy I had to hold me was a figment of my imagination. That was OK, though, because all I had to do was shut the door to the attic, snap my fingers to summon my fairy godsista, Whitney, and “dance with somebody who loves me.”
Back then, whether a record or an artist won a Grammy didn’t matter to me. As long as the music moved my bottom half — heaven forbid if the lyrics also stirred my soul, as in “Thinking About You,” Whitney’s duet with synth maestro Kashif — I found kinetic bliss a prize worth pursuing. An undergrad degree was more difficult to achieve through a combo of unpredictable death benefits, an eleventh-hour grant that covered only senior-year textbooks, and a part-time night job the commute from which courted danger in a predominantly white section of town. With A Dirty Mind and Around the World in a Day bookending my freshman and senior years, it was a miracle that any schoolwork got done. Though, it was easy to understand how I got done. Seriously, Prince (before and during The Revolution), Whitney, Michael Jackson, Angela Bofill, Madonna and Eldra DeBarge all helped me get through college studies and some heavier stuff right at home.
Thanks to the conviction with which Whitney sang “Saving All My Love for You” and, in a duet with Jermaine Jackson, “Take Good Care of My Heart,” I had intuited a clue to love’s mystery and had received fair warning of the complex emotions that unfolded in relationships which catapulted my tenderoni self into adulthood. By the time Whitney was full-bodied, her mature pipes fluttering and “shooping” through “Exhale,” so was I.
When it came to covers, Whitney reshaped a song and made it her own. Several examples of Whitneyfied remakes include “The Greatest” (originally recorded by R&B-jazz singer-musician George Benson for the 1970s movie The Greatest, starring then-heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali) ; “Living for the Love of You” (The Isley Brothers); “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan); “I Believe in You & Me” (from the soundtrack of The Preacher’s Wife [that film itself a reimagining of The Bishop’s Wife], and originally recorded by The Four Tops); and, as alluded to in the title of this blog post, the thematic song for the 1992 blockbuster film The Bodyguard: “I Will Always Love You” (written by and originally recorded by Dolly Parton).
Over the past decade, it was refreshing to find Whitney — daughter of the legendary gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston, cousin of pop icon Dionne Warwick, and goddaughter of “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin — performing more gospel songs live and with verve. She was very much alive. She looked and sounded inspired. It’s not my place to judge whether her elated or dreamy expressions were from natural highs or recreational ones, for Whitney showed the world that, despite the various drug-related controversies and media witch hunts, she was but a humble servant of her Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is to Him I’d like to think her soul floated for divine comfort and joy, and eternal rest.
This weekend, Black Entertainment Television (BET) re-aired “Celebration of Gospel,” from 2011, in which Whitney surprised the on-site and television audiences by stepping onstage in a pretty, gray dress to join the legendary Kim Burrell for a stirring gospel duet. The riveting encore moved emcee Steve Harvey, too. I had watched the excellent program when it was first broadcast, and its appearance on my TV set on February 12th led me to the news announcement, during commercial breaks, of the tragedy. My fairy godsista, Whitney, was gone.
I didn’t learn of the much-adored yet widely maligned pop icon’s passing until today — Sunday — because over a sixteen-hour period I had been sketching and writing the short story “Mixed Signals” for my Negrotica blog. I usually don’t believe in coincidences, but it’s an eerie one that around the time Whitney was reported to have died (according to the news I viewed on BET and CNN today, February 12th), I had incorporated the emotional relevance of her song “Run to You,” from The Bodyguard soundtrack, into the aforementioned short fiction.
Whitney’s film career was launched in 1992 with The Bodyguard, a romantic thriller that I loved then and now in spite of a plot which has more holes than a thin slice of Swiss cheese. No disrespect to her co-star, the gifted and handsome actor Kevin Costner, but the movie (co-produced by Costner) turned into a critical vehicle for Whitney Houston and revitalized her pop music image. According to Wikipedia, Lawrence Kasdan, The Bodyguard’s screenwriter and a co-producer, had pegged Steve McQueen and Diana Ross for the leading roles back in the ’70s, when he scripted the film. As a gi-normous Harrison Ford aficionada, I didn’t need Wikipedia to inform me that Kasdan wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.
Although Whitney’s model good looks were taken for granted in The Bodyguard, the woman was incredibly sexy and portrayed the seducer, which for me was a first for a Black actress in a major motion picture involving an interracial romance as a subplot. Were it not for Whitney’s alluring crescents for eyes, expressive lips, serpentine movements and earthy charm, there would’ve been no credible chemistry between the “Queen of the Night” and her protector, and no basis for the 360° farewell kiss at film’s end. Midfilm, though, Costner’s Frank Farmer had my cheeks burning when he taught Houston’s Rachel Marron a horizontal lesson about tinkering with a sharp sword.
Having let down his guard and agreed with (t)horny Rachel to give her an authentic dating experience, he invited her into his private world: his kind of bar, his kind of flick, his kind of fetish. One would think that the vintage Japanese film which they had viewed at the cinema in town was In the Realm of the Senses. (Surely I joust, you say? Hai, hai. Besides, Rachel’s neck scarf was worn loosely, and there was nary an egg in sight.) Experiencing Far Eastern cultural aftershocks from the samurai movie, Rachel gave herself the green light to pierce through to Frank’s sensual layer. While she certainly was no Black geisha, she approached her off-duty bodyguard’s mounted weapon with slippered poise.
Her demoted, incompetent bodyguard, Tony, had learned the hard way just how proficient Frank was with knives, but she was about to get the point of his fetish. Although she first had seduced Frank, she was now in his man-cave by his design, and he only needed to be lured to the edge of passion to take over the seduction. Executing a few, faux samurai moves, Rachel extended the sword like a temptress with penis envy. After halving her silk scarf like an illusionist’s act gone awry, he got her undivided attention. Awestruck and startled was she. Twinned with desire was he. Unheard but understood was his direction to his member to: “Chaaaaarge!”
Their suppressed, forbidden lust unsheathed, they were woman and man, no longer pop diva and bodyguard — at least not until dawn. Can any true appreciator of The Bodyguard forget how the camera slowly revealed Frank’s massive, long blade penetrating the crotch of Rachel’s dainty, lace, limp panties? Am I the only one who frankly didn’t give a damn that it was overkill when the camera next panned over to the bed, where the pair lay embracing each other in their afterglow? The bedroom was bathed in indigo blue; their faces, in blissful satisfaction (hers) and ambiguous regret (his).
For me, Frank’s perilous sword maneuver — his chivalric touché to Rachel’s initiation of foreplay — in The Bodyguard was the sexiest Kevin Costner scene since his smooches north and south on Sean Young’s statuesque bod — he in uniform, she in lingerie — across a limo’s wide backseat in the Cold War-era suspense film No Way Out (1987), based on Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock. While the film’s eponymously titled, synth-drenched balladic duet led off by Paul Anka saturated the night, Costner’s naval commander and Young’s two-timing mistress frolicked and panted away behind the involuntarily shut slide, leaving the disappointed chauffeur (Bill) to circle DC’s illuminated monuments. And, no, Costner’s Tom Farrell didn’t leave his hat on.
Not since The WIZ, Saturday Night Fever and Purple Rain had I played an original soundtrack (OST) back to back over an entire year! I adored then, as I do now, every track that Whitney laid down on The Bodyguard OST. Also highly listenable are the cuts not performed by her, such as “It’s Gonna Be a Lovely Day” — Clivilles-Cole’s sensually aerobic rendition of Bill Withers’ 1977 hit song “Lovely Day” — which remind us of their contributions to the film’s atmospherics. That is, they musically aid director Mick Jackson in dramatizing the enviable (to some) lush life juxtaposed with a paranoid sensibility that can accompany the perils of celebrity. To date, The Bodyguard remains the highest-selling OST on Earth.
Not one film that Whitney’s talent, name and fame carried — not a one — tanked. I’ve exhausted my praise for The Bodyguard. Now please allow me to take you back down memory lane, for this now-ascended star who in mortal life easily flashed her megawatt smile also had entertained us with her commendable work in The Preacher’s Wife (with Denzel Washington), Cinderella (with singer-actress Brandy in the title role) and Waiting to Exhale (with a tremendous ensemble cast that included Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and the late Gregory Hines).
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[I’m infamous for my asides, so here we go:
Aside #1: Thank you to director and Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker for bringing us the gem Waiting to Exhale in 1995. We need, no, crave, many more films that represent the multifaceted Black Experience. We are human, too, and so non-Blacks (now’s not the time to pelt me with the anthropological “Lucy” theory) will perceive and appreciate the universality in our stories just as we do in theirs. If we can guffaw through The Help — a film I refuse to sit uncomfortably through when an über-rich person such as Oprah Winfrey keeps touting it — then non-Blacks and Blacks can view a film about, say, a happily married, working-class Black couple trying to deal with their twentysomething son’s PTSD after he has survived his “tour” in Afghanistan but no one wants to hire him.
Here, I’m making my plea to: Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Forest Whitaker, Sanaa Hamri, Tyler Perry, Carl Franklin, Marlies Carruth, F. Gary Gray, Darnell Martin, Antoine Fuqua, Neema Barnette, Denzel Washington, Julie Dash, Clark Johnson, Cheryl Dunye, Lee Daniels, Angela Robinson, John Singleton, Coquie Hughes, Sheila Norman, Martin Lawrence, Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Hughes Brothers, Ayoka Chenzira, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and the rest of you responsible Black American, Caribbean and other African-descended filmmakers. Please lift your cameras and, for the auteurs among you, your pens now like never before!
Aside #2: I’m still wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’ that somebody will make a major motion picture about the life of Tammi Terrell — and I’m for real. I’m continuing my campaign launched with my November 2010 post on this Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog, in which I stated that actress Taraji P. Henson would be magnificent cast as Tammi. If those with the capital to fund just about every damned thing else could get in touch with author Vickie Wright and her co-author on the Tammi Terrell bio, Ludie Montgomery, who is Tammi’s sister, then these wonderful ladies will be able to bring their film project to fruition. I plan to be on line on opening night.
Aside #3: Now, what’s being plated in heaps among the annual sampling of films (and TV shows) containing predominantly Black casts? Junk food. We desire soul food! Tyler Perry shouldn’t take all of the heat. He’s a self-made millionaire in an industry that would never do what he does: employ many long-seen-and-heard-from Black actors. And they’re major talents. But I take issue with the excessive histrionics and slapstick that often distract from the serious matters which Perry had the insight and courage to explore. Don’t get me wrong; Madea is fucking hilarious! However, when we already are presented with such a gigantic woman — Perry in drag as a caricature of a composite of grannies and great-aunties some of us know or knew all too well — do we really need the actors in supporting roles going over the top like Madea’s prosthetic tatas? Or should I say, taDAHS!
I’m all for tribute and affection wrapped in comedic irreverence, but in the burial scene in Meet the Robinsons, did Jenifer Lewis’ strident-voiced character need to desecrate “Amazing Grace” and get shoved into the open grave? Why didn’t Perry go further and write a few broken limbs into the script? You Tyler Perry fans know that’s a rhetorical question. Perry sketched a two-dimensional cartoon character, for in the kitchen scene that follows the burial shot, Lewis emerges only with a facial bruise and a crooked wig. Rubbish.
Auteur Spike Lee justifiably was publicly critical of Perry’s representations of Black people and the ironic acceptance by Blacks. But the responsibility of making quality films cannot rest solely on Spike’s shoulders — by the way, I’d say that if he stood over six feet tall. Spike isn’t flawless, of course. He seemed preachy in parts of his 1990s films, such as the scene in Jungle Fever in which Wesley Snipes’ adulterous protagonist steps out of character to give a PSA-worthy speech about unwed teenage mothers. Yes, Spike misstepped there by not ministering to unwed teenage fathers.
However, Spike doesn’t rely on slapstick and on Black characters acting like white actors in blackface in a minstrel show. That’s Perry’s forté. I only hope that I don’t waste $12 ($20 with popcorn and a beverage) walking out of Perry’s Good Deeds the way I did with For Colored Girls.
Aside #4: We are force-fed a plethora of movies from male-dominated POVs that depict Black men, women and children as “coons” — yeah, I went there. Those types of characters are nothing but 21st-century versions of actors made to ape around in flicks that European American audiences flocked to see during the half-century following the end of legal U.S. slavery.]
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Back to the subject of this blog post: the late great Whitney Houston …
When Sparkle, her last film and a remake of the 1976 classic that starred singer-actress Irene Cara in the title role, is released this summer, let’s all go out and support it. Thank you, Bishop T.D. Jakes, for bringing it … and for bringing it back to life. Yes, thank you for resuscitating a film that most of the world forgot, perhaps because it’s about a Black adolescent (singer Jordin Sparks in the title role) — a middle child — who has God-given talent, a big dream, a strong church family, a supportive and adoring friend and, most importantly, a single mother who loves her so much that she fears losing her to vices and materialistic success.
In Sparkle Whitney portrays the matriarch of a family of sisters in a role originated by the graceful actress Mary Alice, who illuminated the small and big screen with an authentic, downhome kind of femininity and mature sensuality. (Mary Alice was ubiquitous in 1970s television programs, especially “Sanford and Son” opposite comedic legend Redd Foxx, and she’s long overdue an “Unsung” profile on TVOne. Hint, hint.) Recalling Mary Alice’s poignant performances during my youth, and how she balanced poise and feistiness, I’m so happy that someone had the prescience or genius to consider Whitney Houston — a religious, doting mom to a teen-age daughter who publicly had expressed her own music industry dreams — for such a coveted role in Sparkle. Timing is everything, and Whitney is a natural for the part.
Those of you who either lined up outside the cinema house in ’76 (as I did that autumn with my mom) when the original Sparkle was released or have viewed it on cable television (thanks, TVOne) or DVD, know that all three daughters were fast-tracked into adulthood amid harsh urban realities. You also may recall that the eldest sibling, “Sister” (pronounced Sistuh), played to the hilt by Lonette McKee, lost her battle to drug addiction — heroin, the drug plied by her pusher-lover, Satin. It’s inspired casting when one considers Whitney’s courage to make a comeback after struggling with a failed marriage — one in which substance abuse and love were intertwined (if not symbiotic), by the pop icon’s own admission.
In the film’s original version, set vaguely in the late 1950s to early 1960s, the midtempo song “Hooked on Your Love” seduced the moviegoer with its muted horns and stripper beat while the gowned-down girl group (McKee’s, Cara’s and Dwan Smith’s characters, in proper birth order) sashayed what their momma gave them to the delight of single and attached men seated at tables in the nightclub. It would be a travesty if in the rebirthed Sparkle movie, “Hooked on Your Love” (sung on the soundtrack album by Aretha Franklin; in the film, by McKee on lead vocals) were omitted instead of re-envisioned.
This time, the whole world will take notice of the film, not only for the dramatic performances and the great soundtrack, but also for its lifesaving messages about loving and believing in oneself and about the significance of supporting and standing up for family and friends when one gets a divine call. Yes, the entire world will pay attention to Sparkle this time around because Whitney Houston no longer is.
Cissy Houston, thank you for trusting the world with your beloved “Nippy.” Many out there did your baby wrong, but they’re greatly outnumbered by us — the longtime fans that discovered who Whitney was through the music which also helped us discover ourselves, who encountered an angel on earth and whose love for her will live on like her amazing legacy.
In Memory of Our Recently Departed Sista-Girl,
Whitney Houston: 1963-2012
© 2012 Chantale Rêve
All Rights Reserved