As Whitney, the new, estate-approved documentary about Whitney Houston opens, we see clips from her video for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” but with all the instrumentation stripped away, so that all we hear is her pure and perfect voice. It’s a powerful beginning because it immediately makes us remember how far she rose and fell from the auspicious start that was her self-titled debut album.
Although Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (Marley, One Day in September, Touching the Void) had more or less complete access to Houston’s family and friends, he spares no detail about the roughest parts of her life. The film includes her tumultuous marriage to performer Bobby Brown, her controlling mother Cissy Houston, her years of drug abuse, and even sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a relative.
But Whitney is no surface-level, tabloid profile. The film digs deep into her years as a teen, singing in church and perfecting her voice and range until she was ready to shop her gift to record companies, with her mother by her side. Not unlike the recent Amy Winehouse doc, Whitney puts a great deal of the blame on others for the negative parts of her life, but Houston was far more in control of things in the beginning, and many of the wrong turns she made were due to choices he made on her own.
There’s almost a celebratory tone to the beginning of the movie, watching her rise up, perfect her gift, land a record deal, and do the talkshow circuit like someone destined for fame. Behind the scenes, things were a bit chaotic and unruly—it probably didn’t help that she hired close family members to manage her career and security while she was touring in these early years. There was no one to tell her not to do something or at least to slow down, with the exception of her mysterious best friend, Robyn Crawford (not interviewed for the film), who many speculated was Houston’s lesbian lover, even though she dated many famous men before hooking up with Brown. Director Macdonald has no issues painting Houston’s family members as varying degrees of homophobic, as they call Crawford an opportunist (the irony of that claim coming from these leaches is lost on no one) and refusing to entertain the thought that Whitney may have been gay or bisexual.
But the hits kept on coming, the tours were huge, and eventually, when Houston turned to acting with The Bodyguard, it’s like she could do no wrong. The film’s use of home movies showing Houston and Brown (who is interviewed and lies to the camera with such earnestness, you almost want to laugh) clearly in a drugged-out state are difficult to endure, especially after she has a child with him. Her behavior became more erratic, and she became the butt of jokes in opening monologues and SNL parodies. The film makes a solid case that Houston allowed herself to slip away from her work to make Brown feel like less of a failure in his music career, and that’s the toughest part of her story to fathom and the easiest to believe based on the evidence.
The last third of Whitney is largely a story of tragedy and failure, concluding with her unexpected death at the age of 48. But there were glimmers of hope that things might have turned around. Her acting career was beginning to take off again, and she was moving in the direction of recording again as well.
But this is a familiar story, and the damage to her body, her voice and her reputation was going to make any type of comeback a long and arduous process. We can certainly fantasize about it, but instead we have to simply think of her singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the Super Bowl or hearing her belt out “I Will Always Love You” like no singer has ever belted out any song, ever.
Whitney spotlights such enduring moments with love and affection so strong that it makes sitting through the ugly parts of her life a little easier to take. This is a terrific, honest look at a life and voice taken away too soon.
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