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