(USA/UK, 120 min.)
Dir. Kevin Macdonald
Whitney might be the first documentary made about Whitney Houston with the full authorization of her family but don’t let that much trucked-about showbiz line fool you. This documentary isn’t a completely sanitized account of the great singer. Houston’s story gets the full warts-and-all treatment from Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald (Marley). While the documentary inevitably bears evidence of well-calculated efforts by the Houston dynasty to overlook the darker aspects of the star’s tragically short-lived career, Whitney pushes hard enough to give audiences a deeper appreciation of the late pop icon. The film is as sad as it is celebratory as it reaches down to Houston’s deepest troubles while hitting the highest notes of her career.
The Houston clan’s involvement in Whitney is significant, especially since the documentary is the second one about the singer to be released within a year. 2017’s Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me?’ by Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield debuted to respectable acclaim from audiences at Tribeca and Hot Docs before falling into obscurity as the Houstons threw support to their own project. It’s hard to detach Whitney from Can I Be Me? and viewers will inevitably find Macdonald’s doc more rewarding and insightful if they have seen the Broomfield/Dolezal film. But one doesn’t need to have seen it. Houston’s story is significant and complex enough to yield multiple approaches. Even Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was a cover of a Dolly Parton’s song and it’s hard to disagree that her version of the tune exceeded the original.
Can I Be Me? is good tabloid entertainment whereas Whitney is great rigorous filmmaking. The previous film gets some juicy details since Dolezal, a friend of Houston, shot an exhaustive array of footage with the singer in the 1990s. Can I Be Me? features oodles of previously unseen candid moments with Houston that reveal the singer at her highest and lowest as she battled drug addiction and personal demons while putting on amazing shows night after night.
After years of trying to cobble together a feature doc out of his footage, and struggling to find common ground with the Houstons who wanted nothing to do with the project, Dolezal landed the help of veteran Broomfield who shaped the film into an engrossing cradle to grave portrait. Can I Be Me’s intimate look revealed the depth of Houston’s relationship with her long-time friend and employee Robin Crawford with whom many interviewees in the film suspected Houston may have been intimate. The doc likens Crawford to being Houston’s voice of reason, and as the film chronicles Crawford’s unfair ousting from Houston’s circle—she and Bobby Brown didn’t get along—it gives audiences a sense that the star lost her biggest ally among a sea of bad influences.
Here’s a good example of the difference between the two films. Dolezal has the footage to show audiences the richness of Houston’s relationship with Crawford, but he’s limited with what he can do with it because the doc lacks the key interviews to transcend mere speculation. It puts on a good show but can’t fully illuminate its subject.
None of the filmmakers scored an interview with Crawford, but Macdonald does get Brown, Houston’s family members, and record producer Clive Davis, all of whom boycotted the Dolezal/Broomfield film. Together the films form a fascinating dialogue about the Houston enclave and the pressures that inevitably contributed to the star’s depression and substance abuse. Crawford appears very little in the archival footage of Macdonald’s film—she’s a footnote compared to a principal player in Dolezal and Broomfield’s doc—and her name arises in few interviews. However, Whitney says more by saying less. Houston’s musical director Ricky Minor states that Whitney was probably what people now identify as “fluid” but didn’t know how to address her sexuality. Even better is the response of Houston’s brother Gary who dismisses Crawford as “wicked,” “evil,” and “a nobody.” The Houstons clearly have an opinion about Crawford. The ingenuity of the editing in Whitney affords audiences a rich if troubling sense of the dynamics of power and control within Houston dynasty.
Similarly, the best interview of Whitney might be when Macdonald sits down with Brown. The bad boy bluntly states that he doesn’t want to talk about Houston’s drug problems. He doesn’t deny them, but he doesn’t feel they’re relevant to Houston’s story, which, as Macdonald observes from off-camera, leaves an awfully big gap in the final years of her life. The guardians of Houston’s secrets say so much when they say nothing within their fully authorized account.
Macdonald navigates the impressive range of interviews and archival footage to get to the root of Houston’s story. If Houston’s family doesn’t want to discuss her troubles and simply prefers to talk about how wonderful she was growing up when everyone called her “Nippy,” then all Macdonald has is yet another well-trodden Norma Jean/Marilyn tale about the tragedy of navigating a public life. There’s a better story here and Macdonald knows it.
The film moves beyond Houston’s close family after giving them their obligatory airtime. As the doc traverses the concentric circles of Houston’s friends and family—and one really must emphasizes the dexterity of the editing in Whitney as the collages incorporates archival footage to inject the social backdrop of Houston’s significance—Macdonald finds voices willing to speak about the star more frankly and objectively. These interviews form the emotional core of the film as people like Houston’s assistant, Mary Jones, reveals that the singer was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Houston’s brother, Gary, confirms Jones’s story that their cousin Dee Dee Warwick molested Whitney when she was young. The burden of keeping her story a secret, and of associating sexual experiences with violation and shame, illuminates so much of the troubles that other portraits of Houston have failed to reveal. As one watches a career and life cut short by drug addictions and battles with the bottle, Whitney lets a weight off its subject’s chest with hopes of empowering other survivors so that they too may find help and guidance.
The film also covers Houston’s many successes to underscore the tragedy of her stunted career. The most forceful voice in the doc belongs to Whitney Houston as the soundtrack encompasses her greatest performances from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “I Will Always Love You.” Just count the goosebumps that arise when Macdonald presents an isolated vocal track from Houston’s poppy dance anthem “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” around the mid-point of the film. The raw emotion, the pure joy, and the bittersweet hopefulness carried within Houston’s voice are timeless. Whitney takes Houston off the celebrity pedestal and finds a troubled, fallible human being with a voice that will live forever.
Whitney opens in theatres Friday, July 13.