I’m in Manchester’s O2 Apollo, about to experience something that’s been called ‘ghoulish’ by The Guardian, ‘a farrago’ by The Daily Mail and ‘terrifying’ by an ITV viewer who saw it perform for an enthralled Eamonn Holmes on ‘This Morning’: a Whitney Houston hologram. Specifically ‘An Evening with Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour’. It’s produced by the singer’s estate with BASE Hologram – a company that has previously created versions of Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Maria Callas.
While a Tupac hologram grabbed headlines back in 2012, virtual tours are still such a novel experience that I’m pretty conflicted about it. Should I be feeling guilty for attending a spectacle that Houston herself might not have approved of? Am I contributing to the death of live music as we know it by giving publicity to a tour that could lead to a slew of other holograms, like the mooted Amy Winehouse one (currently postponed). Plus I’m a massive Whitney fan – what if it ends up looking like ’90s CGI?
The Apollo is busy but not packed to its 3,500 capacity. That could be down to ticket prices – entry to the London show this week, for example, costs around £70. A varied crowd (mums and daughters, groups of thirtysomething female mates, gay and straight couples) seem excited as they knock back Friday night drinks in their seats. When the show begins at 8.45pm with ‘Whitney’ materialising out of thin air, it becomes clear that the hologram is both impressive and a bit unsettling.
Houston’s mannerisms have been captured with great attention to detail, right down to the white handkerchief she’d wave elegantly while performing. The hologram doesn’t move much, just a few steps forward and to the side, but it does contribute some ill-advised stage patter. ‘Welcome to Whitney Houston, very much alive,’ it (or should that be ‘she’?) says jarringly at the start. It’s not the last time this show is creepily uncomfortable.
The hologram’s face is a bit less convincing than its body, but it’s still impossible not to be blown away by the joy of Houston’s music or the majesty of her vocals, which seem largely drawn from various gig recordings during her ’90s heyday. It’s hard to tell: the hologram changes costumes a few times, but it doesn’t seem to age much. The show is at its best when the thrill of hearing iconic songs along with thousands of fans transcends the awkwardness. ‘How Will I Know’ and ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ get everyone up on their feet like they’re at a wedding reception; hearing ‘I Have Nothing’ and ‘Step by Step’ is genuinely a little emotional.
Perhaps because holograms can’t answer back, some audience members aren’t entirely respectful. The Whitneygram was reportedly heckled at an earlier show in Sheffield. Tonight’s crowd aren’t so brazen, but there’s a lot of talking during songs and some truly uncomfortable interruptions. As ‘My Love Is Your Love’ begins, a woman shouts out the ‘Sing, Mommy!’ ad lib on the original recording by Houston’s then five-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown. Given that Brown died in 2015 in circumstances tragically similar to those that claimed her mother, it’s a desperately sad and crass moment.
The hologram is joined by a live band and live backing dancers who unwittingly highlight virtual Whitney’s slightly too narrow proportions. But on the plus side, the technological trickery does allow it to instantly change costume – during a twirl, no less. It’s the best moment of the night, and a bit of magic that this show could use more of. As realistic as it is, I’d find it more enjoyable if the concept embraced its inherent artifice by adding loads of clever special effects, rather than trying to be a gig experience. This dazzling smoke-and-mirrors stuff would go down a storm in Vegas, where the hologram is about to begin a residency. A Kevin Costner ‘gram, might, however, be a step foo far.
Still, when the show ends 75 minutes later, the crowd don’t seem short-changed at all. What this evening really lacks is spontaneity and the thrill of being in the same room as a superstar, which means the hologram experience still feels a bit, er, hollow. Some audience members are clearly moved, and I am too actually, but that doesn’t mean it’s a proper tribute to Whitney’s talent. Until we as fans work out what we really want from hologram tours – or if we even want them at all – they’re always going to feel more like a curiosity than the future of music. If you want a one-line verdict, it’s this: it’s not right, but it’s okay.
‘An Evening with Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour’ is at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith on Tue Mar 10.
Check out more gigs happening in London in March here.