Whitney Houston is undoubtedly a figure of fascination. Within her is a versatile and powerful voice that led to seven consecutive number one hits and, separately, the best-selling female record of all time: ‘I Will Always Love You’.
She also married Bobby Brown, an erratic and controlling figure, and had demons of drug and alcohol abuse dog her career. She was found dead in a bathtub at the age of 48, with drugs in her system. Separating the two is an impossibility. Is she the victim of success or another sacrifice at the altar of excess, celebrity and greedy relatives?
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, Whitney charts her entire life. From growing up in the slums of Newark with her touring mother and civil servant father, through her rise to stardom and the inevitable steps that led to her early death. There is a long list of items on any tick-list of her life. Her relationship with her best friend, Robyn Crawford. Her daughter, Bobbi Kristina. Her extended family and the many family members who were on her payroll. Macdonald, without overplaying his hand, alludes to this by his acknowledgement of the talking heads and their role in her life. So many are “…and employee” in addition to their familial connection. However, few managed to risk their close ties in an effort to control her addictions. Macdonald manages to weave, within Houston’s tale, the era that she existed in. Ronald Reagan. The LA riots. OJ Simpson. Princess Diana. It is a busy collage that exposes the disconnect between fluffy, upbeat pop tunes or emotional power-ballads and the world that surrounded them.
Considered the “official” documentary, it is an intriguing comparison to last year’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, directed by Nick Broomfield. Unlike Broomfield, Macdonald has all the major players – yet they both never managed to snag an interview with a vital piece of this puzzle, Robyn Crawford. Macdonald has the catalogue of music by Houston and footage that’s incredibly intimate, but Whitney never truly celebrates her musical achievement (something, arguably, Broomfield could not practically reach). Therefore, despite this unique opportunity offered to Macdonald, he barely manages to out-document Broomfield, and the two both feel like treading the same path with a slight, unexpected direction at the end of Macdonald’s Whitney.
Naturally, there is a clear connection to the wildly successful Kapadia documentary, Amy. The reality that we, as a society, with enormous wealth and opportunity, still cannot look after our most prized and skilled artists is a story that remains grimly true. The ties that bind a family has a cost. A moment when Macdonald asks Bobby Brown about drugs is particularly telling, as even after her death, there is a deep conflict about his responsibility in her vices. Thankfully, Macdonald briefly discusses The Star Spangled Banner and Houston’s exquisite version in 1991. There are undisputable truths and the moment Houston sings at her peak, it is breathtaking – the darkness in her life will never hide her enormous talent. Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, despite this, is intent on focusing on the darkness.
This was originally published for Culturefly in July 2018