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Review: Real drama is missing in Grammy tale of Whitney Houston's death

A documentary airing Saturday on CBS looks at the backstage scramble to cope with Whitney Houston's death, but the fuller story goes untold.

February 09, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Backstage events after Whitney Houston’s death will be revisited on CBS.
Backstage events after Whitney Houston’s death will be revisited… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The most riveting moment of "The Grammys Will Go On: A Death in the Family," the revealing — if self-serving — CBS documentary about Whitney Houston's death less than 24 hours before the 2012 Grammys telecast, arrives midway through. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it involves the song "I Will Always Love You."

The moment stars singer Jennifer Hudson, who during the telecast performed a heartbreaking rendition of Houston's signature song. It's the rehearsed version, however, within this behind-the-scenes documentary airing Saturday night that chronicles how Grammy producers and musicians scrambled and adapted to the tragic news, that packs the most wallop.

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Only hours after learning that her idol had died, Hudson agreed to perform Houston's signature tune and arrived at Staples Center to work it out. As Hudson explains on camera, Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich pulled her aside and made a suggestion. "'I don't want you to perform this,'" Hudson recalls him saying. "'I want you to sing it for Whitney.'" We then watch Hudson during that rehearsal pushing through that powerful chorus.

As she approaches the heart of it, however, Hudson breaks with a shudder — she can't handle the rest of the line ".... will always love you." The piano moves forward, she breathes, barely holding on, and we watch as she recomposes herself and powers through. The moment is raw, wounded. If only we could have seen more than a few seconds of it.

Such omissions are the central flaw of this hourlong Grammy-produced endeavor, one that's an interesting, and at times emotional, watch for fans of Houston. But it forgoes context — we never learn, for example, how Houston died — in favor of a focus on last year's rehearsals and the live performances in the wake of the death. A much more dramatic account could have been told by an outside chronicler because that was a truly strange weekend in Los Angeles.

The narrative is set mostly at the Staples Center, where in the days leading up to the broadcast artists rehearse their performance numbers, rather than the broader story of the troubled superstar's death. Although the tragedy unfolded in two different Grammy-sponsored settings, Staples Center and the Beverly Hilton across town, little mention is made of this.

Houston died at the Hilton on Saturday afternoon, and that evening the annual Clive Davis party took place in the grand ballroom — while Houston's body was still in room 434 above. "The Grammys Will Go On" features few mentions of that location. The most prominent and touching inclusion from that event is of Clive Davis' announcement from the podium of her death and brief eulogy. Davis, who signed the young Houston to his label, is shown somberly remembering her.

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Alicia Keys' emotional performance, however, in which she introduced "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" with the story of becoming friends with Houston after growing up singing the song, was particularly memorable. But it, like other Hilton performances, was not shown.

Instead, we get a carefully edited program that serves as little more than a touching promotion for Sunday's Grammy Awards telecast, mixed with a narrative that dances around the true tension. We watch stars including Paul McCartney, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, LL Cool J, Hudson and Adele, along with Ehrlich, director Louis Horvitz and a staff of dozens, recall those hours. Though the emotions among the players are charged and honest — Ehrlich, in particular, is a great narrator — the story of the adapting is far from heroic.

Granted, the Staples Center on Saturday and Sunday contained its share of drama: "My heart started racing and I started hyperventilating," says Horvitz at one point, describing the moment he heard the news of Houston's death and realizing what it meant.

"You could feel the tension in the house," says Chantel Sausedo, the show's talent coordinator. "We were going to change a show that is huge, and we were going to have to do it in 12 hours. And it had to happen, and it had to happen right then."

Although such stress and chaos is evident at the periphery of "A Death in the Family," seldom does the true drama of the evening sneak through.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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