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 authorized-by-the-estate Whitney Houston documentary by Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, takes an unflinching look at its subject's life and death. 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. Whitney's director is himself 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. 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.