Movie Review ~ Whitney


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An in-depth look at the life and music of Whitney Houston.

Stars: Whitney Houston

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When I was young and MTV was just starting, I remember asking a friend’s sister to record this one video from an artist I just loved because I wanted to be able to watch it whenever I wanted. I even used a tape recorder to nab a sound recording so I could listen to it on the go. The song? How Will I Know. The artist? Whitney Houston. It was the start of a life-long devotion to the singer and sometimes actress, one that didn’t end with her tragic death at 48 on February 11, 2012.  Before she died and even after she was gone, rumors about drug use, sexual abuse, and destructive behavior swirled around the artist leaving many to believe the lies without knowing the truth.

In the new documentary Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald (How I Live Now) explores Houston’s meteoric rise and untimely fall through an introspective lens. Though he’s become more well known for Hollywood films, Macdonald got his start with documentary filmmaking and has kept to his roots throughout the years. It’s Macdonald’s experience with this genre and his piqued interest in the subject that propels Whitney from being a standard biography to an electric showcase of the dark side of fame.  Seeing the previews for Whitney I expected to come out of the film sad but never expected to come out as mad as I did. Here’s another tale of a talent surrounded by people that loved her for what she gave them but turned a blind eye to her cries for help. Not wanting to upset their meal ticket, it’s clear that family, friends, and co-workers were unwilling to tell the troubled performer no and largely sat idly by as she imploded.

An interesting technique Macdonald uses is to give viewers a snapshot of what was going on in the world at various points throughout Houston’s career. Interspersed with family photos and videos are television ads of the day and news clips from key events. It’s not exactly a revolutionary method but it helps set the scene quickly and distinctly. Through the years we get a better idea of what kind of impact Houston had on pop culture and how, after her public battle with drugs, she eventually became a joke to the very people that once sang her praises.

As she was growing up in New Jersey, Macdonald interviews those that knew Nippy (Houston’s nickname) and could tell at an early age that she possessed something special. Raised by her civil servant father and groomed by her famous mother (Cissy Houston, a singer), Houston was exactly the kind of fresh face and powerful voice that the music industry didn’t even know they needed. Shepherded by Clive Davis at Arista records, Macdonald boldly moves the action far forward, jumping from the popularity of her first album and skipping over the next several years as Houston cements herself as a gigantic star.  Going beyond the music, Macdonald shins a light on secrets within the Houston family and goes into uncomfortable detail in how everything in Houston’s upbringing wasn’t as rosy as her PR team made it out to be.

A telling sign of how fame can affect family and friends, many of the subjects interviewed get “employee” added to their onscreen relationship credit over time. Eventually, everyone that she was close to got on her payroll which caused great conflicts of interest between the star and those she trusted. Were they giving her advice as a friend or as an employee? Did they have her best interest as a person in mind or were they just looking the other way to keep getting a paycheck.  Thankfully, Macdonald doesn’t fall on either side of this issue but keeps Whitney as objective as possible. This viewer surely made his own conclusions but the filmmaker lets the words of Houston and those that knew her tell the story…and lets some of them dig their own grave. In frank and honest interviews, people admit to, among other things, providing Houston with drugs, knowing about sexual abuse within Houston’s extended family, and worrying about her parenting of daughter Bobbi Kristina. Houston’s notorious ex-husband Bobby Brown pops up and does himself no favors while the brief time we sepnd with Houston’s mother tells us all we need to know about the fire in their bellies that fueled their dreams of success.

While Macdonald covers a lot of bases (including the rumors about Houston’s sexuality) he never fully ties up any loose ends. There are several items that are introduced but never truly explored, a sign the film could have been a lot longer had Macdonald been free from the constraints of a theatrical running length. My hope is that any excised footage or interviews are made available on a home release or that a longer version is compiled at a later time. There’s just too much to cover in two hours and, while it’s all fascinating, too many of the fairly important pieces to  a much deeper puzzle are left in the box.

Let’s just face facts, Whitney Houston was one of the best singers in history and to lose her so early was an outright tragedy. Could her death have been prevented? Was there something more someone could have done? Sadly, the answer is yes and while Whitney doesn’t try to answer all the questions audiences may come with, it does provide stunning evidence that many people let her down.

Movie Review ~ Sparkle

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the 1960s, three sisters form girl group and soon become Motown sensations, but fame becomes a challenge as the close-knit family begins to fall apart.

Stars: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Cee-Lo Green

Director: Salim Akil

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score (6/10):

Trailer Review: Here

Review:  There are two large shadows that loom mightily over this remake of the 1976 film of the same name.  The first is the obvious comparison to that other musical centering on a Supremes-like girl group in the 60’s: Dreamgirls.  If you look at the timeline carefully you’ll note that the original Sparkle came out a full four years before Dreamgirls opened on Broadway…thereby making it the first on the scene.  The parallels between the two are more than a little coincidental but Sparkle takes a harder edge in its latter half that would have seemed out of place in Dreamgirls.  Also, I’d say that Dreamgirls is an outright musical while Sparkle is a drama with the occasional musical number delivered from a stage, nightclub, or church.  The two may be similar in story but their paths diverge, making Sparkle less obviously about The Supremes.

The second shadow is more of a ghost like presence concerning co-star Houston who passed away in February just as the film was moving into post production.  It’s hard to say what kind of press the film would have received had Houston not died but it was her return to the screen after more than 15 years so a lot of attention would have been focused on this project anyway.  Houston also acted as executive producer of the film, having acquired the rights back in early 2000 with the intention to star alongside Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah.  When Aaliyah herself passed away the project was put on hold until now. 

Both of these shadows don’t sink the film that winds up being surprisingly pleasant even though it drifts a bit in the latter half.  It’s a fairly predictable flick and if you can’t see the pieces falling into place long before they do then you need your eyes checked.  Even with its telegraphed plot there is a winning quality to the film that keeps you invested based on the strength of the performances, production design and strong direction.

Like Dreamgirls, the star of the film is another American Idol alum making her screen debut and Sparks is mostly up to the challenge though she won’t be winning an Oscar for her efforts.  It’s not a star-making turn like Jennifer Hudson had in Dreamgirls but Sparks doesn’t embarrass herself, even if the role doesn’t quite fit her like a glove.  With her mega-watt smile the camera loves her and she fits the era well in terrific costumes by Ruth E. Carter.  Her Idol-tuned voice doesn’t truly fit the period (1968) however her vocals near the end have a rousing power to them. 

Speaking of the soundtrack, aside from music cues from actual popular music of that time none of the music sounds remotely late 60’s which is a shame.  Much of the new material was written by R. Kelly and its feet are firmly planted in contemporary pop music.  The music isn’t bad (especially the great “Running” sung by a secondary character played by musician Goapele) but authenticity flies out the window whenever the music starts to play.  Also, I would have bet the ranch that several of the actors had their vocals dubbed but careful inspection showed that everyone was doing their own singing…so basically they were just lyp-synching badly in the film.  Houston even struggled with matching her pre-recorded vocals when filming…which is surprising coming from an artist who famously perfectly lyp-synched The Star Spangled Banner at The SuperBowl.

While watching Houston onscreen I started to miss her presence all over again.  Yes, she struggled with addiction but there was no denying she had a voice that wouldn’t quit.  Her acting was spotty in her limited film career and had she made more films I believe she would have evolved…sadly it wasn’t meant to be.  In Sparkle, she’s the mom to the trio of girls that form Sister and Her Sisters and she takes care of business easily.  She’s the stereotypical single mom who has been-there, done-that and doesn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps.  At times, Houston plays the role a bit too nasty which makes the inevitable softening of her resolve at the conclusion harder to fully buy.  While Houston works through the material well she appears tired with her eyelids often at half mast and more than a few scenes played with her eyes totally closed.  Who knows what was going on during that period but for a highly hyped return to the screen (and as it turns out her final performance) she’s serviceable but doesn’t ace it. 

Brit Ejogo looks great and sings well as the lead singer of the group.  Without Sparks in the mix she would have (and probably should have) been the star of the show as most of the film revolves around her and the choices she makes as her star rises.  Ejogo has a pretty voice and at times looks an awful lot like Michelle Pfeiffer so you know my attention was rapt when she was onscreen.  Sumpter is probably the best actress of the group and gets to deliver some of the funnier lines as the worldly-wise sister that isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. 

The men in the film are a mixed bag and play their broad characters in support of the females – which is exactly what they should have done.  Epps and Luke play love interests to the Ejogo and Sparks characters and if neither actor gets to dig in deep they make consistent choices throughout.  If you’re going to see Green you’ll be in for a let-down as his appearance is strictly limited to the opening five minutes.  It’s nearly a walk-on role as he opens the movie with a song and then disappears.

Director Akil works from the screenplay his wife Mara Brock Akil updated and for the most part he’s delivered a good-looking, well-formed picture that should please fans of Sparks and Houston.  While some of the plot’s turning points are more convenient than believable (such as Bible-thumping Houston providing Sparks with the lowest cut Jezebel looking red dress this side of Mae West), it all somehow adds up to a harmless watch.