Soundtracks To Remember: Whitney Houston In Film

Iconic beyond the music, Whitney Houston’s short-lived film career left us with moments that made us realize Houston is just your everyday performer who added layers of realism to her performances. With five film acting credits, Houston energizes the screen with charisma as she makes an impact with luscious music and memorable performances. Whitney Houston’s in-film musical rendition of “I Have Nothing” in 1992’s The Bodyguard drives a dynamic bullet to the head, making emotions flow through us. Grounded in reality, she shows us parallel relativity in Waiting To Exhale (1995), and in the romantic intrigues of The Preacher’s Wife (1996), Houston found ways to feel seen. Though Whitney Houston is remembered in film for her performances in The Bodyguard and Cinderella (1997), she contributed memorable music that has stood the test of time. Music that we grew up with, and for some, the movies that have given us a voice, an essence of being, and internal growth; however, what we’ll remember most is her charisma and charm as she took us on these whirlwind journeys in film and music.

As a fan of Whitney Houston’s music and live performances, I initially didn’t know she did much with movies except for Cinderella (1997) and her cover of “I Will Always Love You.” I eventually saw what she could accomplish by bringing dynamic performances without needing to be the best performer in each scene. Houston’s performances were less individualized and more communal, allowing herself to command a set without being a showstopper. It’s as if she acted a part of a team, allowing herself to boast the merits of those around her and vice versa without needing to steal her scenes vigorously… except when she sang because you’d get mesmerized by her delicate melodies and emotional bravado. As I watched and rewatched three of her films to contextualize her charisma and confidence the music boosted the relevancy of the films beyond memorable scenes like the ice skating in The Preacher’s Wife or the comical and self-assured second sex scene from Waiting To Exhale. We hear the music somberly playing in the background, adding emotive layers to direct us as Houston’s character shifts in feeling; especially so with The Bodyguard and The Preacher’s Wife.

With The Bodyguard, we got these luscious covers and originals that weaved new takes on classic styles and tones, like “I’m Every Woman.” Taking the disco-laced song by Chaka Khan, Houston brings along C+C Music Factory, famous for “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now), and flips the production by evolving it like Disco. As Disco began to see a decline in the nightlife zeitgeist, the percussion patterns influenced new genres like House, where this cover lives, triumphantly fresh and new without taking away from the nuances of the original version. The soundtrack for The Bodyguard is laced with a vibrant array of R&B/Pop hybrids that exude the emotional depth Houston’s character delivers within the film, without taking away from the luscious pop masterpieces like “I’m Every Woman.” Making her character a singer and actress helped bolster the music performed. It’s here where we hear the iconic performance of “I Have Nothing” midway through the film, letting us hear and see the complexities of Houston’s performance as she sees the direness of the situation. We hear it again during the final moments; the monstrously powerful cover of “I Will Always Love You” takes you for a spin as you hear this mighty shift in vocal textures contrasting the plucky and folkish original by Linda Ronstadt.

Waiting To Exhale (1995). Dir. Forest Whitaker.

Leading into her third film, The Preacher’s Wife, Houston acted alongside actors and actresses who have studied the craft; still, she held her own in memorable roles. With Waiting To Exhale (1995) and The Preacher’s Wife (1996), Houston acted alongside Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Lela Rochon, and Denzel Washington, respectively, and never feels like the odd duck out. Houston brought thinly veiled but relatable levels of nuance, buoying the emotional bravado needed for her solo scenes. In the opening of Waiting to Exhale, Whitney Houston’s charisma and charm radiate from the screen, daring us to fall in love with her tender eyes and confidence as she swoons over a married man at a group dinner. As Houston dances with the married man, we hear the somberly phenomenal R&B dance ballad “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” the titular song for the film. It plays as we get a minimal intro to the characters, helping us sense the tumultuous times they’ll be facing. It’s telling these characters, and us, to breathe and exhale the nerves of stress at the climax of discomfort. From here, we learn that Houston’s character is perplexed by the desire toward the unobtainable, considering the men she dates. The music that plays during her and her co-star’s emotional scenes helps contextualize the duality of music in these scenes, especially with Houston and her memorable scenes.

A benefit to Houston was that the 90s came with an influx of stereotypical use of music within scenes to boost emotional response, relying less on medium shots and facial expressions to do the heavy emotional lifting. The music is part of her person, and it drives for hope and togetherness as her characters strive to shift gloom into prosperity, despite the help from the angel Dudley, played jovially and with oodles of cheer by Denzel Washington. That energy gets matched by Houston, who lets her character grow and feel realized as she juggles these emotional crossroads. These luscious Gospel/R&B songs help boost the direction or misdirect of a scene with the tone, like the boisterous and gleeful opening with the organ sounding, and the harmonies radiate like the lights through a glass prism illuminating the textures of her vocals.

Listening to the soundtrack for The Preacher’s Wife for years, it didn’t come as a surprise; Whitney Houston’s history in Gospel is unbound; her vocals make our ears perk up by sensing the duality between performances. Similarly, her vocal performances, alongside others, demonstrated more tenderness in her melodies, continuing to accentuate the writing and production of Babyface, one of Houston’s long-term collaborators like David Foster. In Preacher’s Wife, Houston commands the stage, conducting, directing, and performing, weaving these beautiful complexities on screen that mirror who she is as an artist. Though Houston has had co-writers and collaborators, like many stars, she always wielded her identity and performances, boasting the importance of movement. It’s the film that allows Houston to be herself while commanding focus on the character’s dilemmas.

Furthermore, Whitney Houston’s performance in The Preacher’s Wife is as remarkable as the music she produced. Though Angela Bassett took the reigns of the A plot within Waiting To Exhale, Houston’s nuanced performance was another stepping stone for the emotionally powerful and resonant showing in The Preacher’s Wife. She’s more than just the choir leader; she’s giving us a performance that sees her grappling with varying emotions as she keeps hopes high when everything seems down at Christmastime. The music Houston performs, particularly her direction of the choir’s vocalist, and the emotional relationship divide between her and Courtney B. Vance. With a short list of film credits, it’s easier for anyone to latch onto a performance and see how she guides it with genuine tenderness, as we already have that musical connection. It bounds you closer to The Preacher’s Wife as you notice everything that makes her a significant presence on-screen come to life. It’s different from music videos, as Houston looks to command the room, reading the emotional depth imposed by the framing and taking it to astronomical heights like with her in-film performance of “I Believe In You And Me.” It’s the scene that stuck with me the first time I caught a few moments of The Preacher’s Wife on TV and were reaffirmed when I finally saw the film in its entirety.

The Bodyguard (1992). Dir. Mick Jackson.

It’s a sight to behold if you haven’t seen or listened to it since the music doesn’t occupy similar sensibilities from her second studio album, and owes more to her debut and I’m Your Baby Tonight. The luscious grandeur of pop hits like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “Love Is A Contact Sport” aren’t as prevalent, adding to the melancholy and expressive depth of the Gospel/R&B songs. That doesn’t push aside pop, more so turns it into a presence that looms within the grooves, which keeps us engaged through the steps, like “Step by Step.” But as I implore you to seek out these films, it’s equally important to see how Whitney Houston, along with her collaborators, bolstered the final product, which may not be for all ears, even when her voice is.

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