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Television Reviews : An Incomplete Portrait of Singer Cissy Houston

February 12, 1988|ZAN STEWART

Singer Cissy Houston is not only pop singer Whitney Houston's mother and Dionne Warwick's aunt. She's also a highly regarded studio session vocalist who on her own, and with her group, the Sweet Inspirations, has backed the likes of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Carmen McRae and Herbie Mann.

And she's a life-long gospel singer who for 18 years has been director of the radio choir of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J.

Dave Davidson's somewhat slow "Cissy Houston: Sweet Inspiration" (tonight at 10 on Channel 28) explores all of these facets at least casually, if not in detail. A good portion of the film is made up of interviews with Houston, her daughter, her sisters (as children they all were members of the Drinkard--Houston's maiden name--Singers gospel group), Warwick, Franklin, singer Luther Vandross and producer Jerry Wexler and many others.

These interviews tell her story, from her early gospel career to her entrance into pop music to her work with the choir. Plenty of live performance footage provides a healthy balance.

But some provocative questions are raised and never answered. She mentions "devasting events in her life that brought her back" to her church, and we wonder what these events were and when and why did she leave.

When she's shown momentarily venting her anger at a sloppy performance by the amateurs in her choir, as well as her daughter making allusions to her mother's ability to humiliate, we'd like to know about this darker side of her personality. These and other lapses give a less-than complete picture of this behind-the-scenes artist.

Still, when Houston is seen singing in church, she and the film come alive. Her powerhouse, golden-voice renditions of gospel tunes, captured expressively by Paul Gibson's hand-held, swirling cinematography, is an arresting sight.

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