Whitney tells a maddeningly familiar story: the one about talent squandered on drugs; the one about a bright, brilliant girl who became a spent woman. Church solos beget record deals beget sold-out stadiums. A meteoric rise; a swift crash and burn. All the greatest hits.
It’s a well-worn tale, but that doesn’t diminish the scale of its tragedy. Whitney, the new Whitney Houston documentary by Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, opens with a montage of colorful mid-’80s optimism: Smiling blonde kids hawk Coca-Cola and McDonald’s while Ronald Reagan waxes poetic about American promise, all set to the buoyant, synth-heavy sounds of “How Will I Know,” from Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut. Then static takes over the screen, and Macdonald cuts to footage of the riots of 1967 in Newark, New Jersey. Houston had been born there just a few years earlier.
That contrast haunts the rest of the film, which, unlike last year’s urgent Showtime documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, was made with the approval of the late singer’s estate. That doesn’t mean Whitney pulls its punches; despite, or maybe because of, the participation of Houston’s family, Whitney takes an unflinching look at its subject’s life and death. Much of Macdonald’s story will be familiar to those who’ve seen Broomfield and Dolezal’s version. But because Whitney boasts as talking heads Houston’s close friends and family, it paints a slightly more intimate, personal portrait of the record-breaking artist.
Those family members include Houston’s mother, the gospel singer Cissy Houston, who sang backing vocals for Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Cissy’s niece, Dionne Warwick. Macdonald films Cissy in the Newark church where she worked as the musical director, and where her daughter sang as a child before the family moved to East Orange, New Jersey. At first, Whitney gives off the unpleasant whiff of dirty laundry being aired, as the members of Houston’s inner circle, speaking alone in front of the camera, dish on the family’s secrets. For the first third of the film, Whitney is cluttered with the voices of people who are not Whitney Houston — as opposed to Amy, the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary on Amy Winehouse, which never cuts to a person talking straight to the camera, but rather layers voices over footage of its subject.
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Unlike that film, Whitney’s director is an off-camera presence; we hear him pose questions, sometimes unnervingly intimate ones — “Do you think she liked sex?” he asks a childhood friend of Houston’s. Bobby Brown appears partway through — apparently the singer is mounting a comeback, complete with a new album and a series on BET — although Houston’s ex-husband somewhat laughingly refuses to acknowledge her drug problem. “Drugs has nothing to do with her life,” he insists, as if he could will that to be true. It’s cool that Macdonald was able to get Clive Davis, the man who “discovered” Houston, to sit down for an interview, but it’s not terribly illuminating to hear the octogenarian talk about how blown away he was when he first heard Whitney Houston’s voice and its “profound impact” on him. Houston sold some 200 million records during her too-short career; the “impact” that had on his own bottom line would’ve been profound indeed.
The montage of her early chart-topping success echoes much of Can I Be Me, which focused on Houston’s final tour. Can I Be Me featured more footage of Houston singing, but both films highlight the stress and confusion of “code-switching” to appeal to white America without losing who she was and betraying where she came from. (Houston’s former hairstylist remarks that The Bodyguard shoot was the first time the stylist had been around that many white people.) And Whitney tells a similar story about Houston’s relationship with her close confidant and onetime artistic director, Robyn Crawford, who was pushed out of the Houston orbit in 1999. There’s lots of fascinating, revealing footage of a young Whitney goofing off backstage with her brothers or cuddling up to Cissy while mother and daughter bitch about Paula Abdul (she “ain’t shit,” according to Whitney) and Janet Jackson. You just be you, Cissy instructs, as Whitney nuzzles her on a green room couch, like a puppy. Just be yourself and that’s what’ll shoot you to the top.
And she was right, except it’s never that simple, not with so much money at stake. In the end, it’s useful to hear from the until-now shadowy chorus of Whitney Houston insiders: Late in the film, when Macdonald plays a clip from Houston’s infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer (“Crack is wack!”), I found myself cringing not at Houston’s erratic behavior but at Sawyer’s inquisition; at one point, she pulls out a picture of Houston looking emaciated while performing a Michael Jackson tribute and confronts her subject with it — we have hard evidence of your deterioration right here! Just as shocking as that performance photo is Houston’s participation in the interview itself. Why was she out there on the front lines defending herself, while all the people who were all too happy to enable her addiction if it meant staying on the payroll got to remain anonymous?
Although Cissy is interviewed early in the film, Macdonald never revisits her — not even after two family members confide to the camera that Houston confessed to being sexually abused by a family member as a child. That’s around the time I started to feel guilty for wishing, early in the film, that Macdonald would tune out the noise of the Houston family and just let Whitney sing; there’s some spine-tingling footage of her early concerts, and when he includes her first TV appearance, in 1983, Macdonald is wise enough to let Houston sing uninterrupted. By the time Whitney winds to an end, that massive talent feels like a dangerously valuable resource, one that even the people who were supposed to protect Houston couldn’t resist exploiting.