One of those documentaries that you walk out of with a bit of a sheen on only to wake up the next day and realise how problematic it is, Whitney is a missed opportunity. Kevin Macdonald delivers a workmanlike linear narrative to the story of Houston’s rise and fall but omits, brushes over or gravely under-represents huge swathes of key information in this story. As the officially endorsed documentary, you can see how the Houston Estate certainly had editorial choice over what wound up in the finished film.
Whitney Houston. The stuff of legend. A girl from the ghettos of Newark to the top of the entertainment business with a voice of an angel who came crashing down. I, too, remember when Whitney Houston burst onto the scene, my mother having bought the debut self titled album and my then 7 year old brain thinking she was African. I distinctly remember thinking all her songs were boring love songs (urkk! – hey, come on, I was 7) and it wasn’t until the chart smashing I Wanna Dance With Somebody dropped in June 1987 and stayed on top of the charts for 5 weeks, that I got the fandom of the artist. Her then rise and fall was fairly well documented through the media and so here, years after her death, we arrive at the second feature documentary on her after Nick Broomfield’s abysmal Whitney: Why Can’t I Be Me? scorned us in 2017. And the question is: What can this new film bring to the table that we don’t already know?
This time around accomplished documentarian Kevin Macdonald (Touching The Void, One Day In September) and producers Jonathan & Simon Chinn (along with a host of executive and associate producers whom are clearly from the Houston Estate) tackle the tale of the daughter of a singer and a councilman who grew up to be a megastar. You’d be right to be excited with Macdonald at the helm…
Whitney as a cinematic package is a flashy affair, there’s plenty of stock footage, home video content and live performance to be enjoyed here – especially for the fans. What is a plus, though not as effective as he may have it set out to be, is Macdonald tries to contextualise Houston’s origins in the socio-political landscape of the United States and, indeed, the world. We open to a reference to the Newark riots and fires as a backdrop of racial tensions to establish the times Houston grew up in (i.e. she was of modest means, baby), and we quickly learn of her love of singing in church, her domineering mother Cissy Houston in shaping her vocal training, and her family network.
It’s not too long before the film jumps of the rags-to-riches storyline and steadfastly sticks to it. It’s all bells and whistles, with a rushed introduction in the drugs, her daughter, Bobby Brown, her career, and the people around her. This is very much a cherry-picked voyage into the singer. You don’t learn anything new here – except for a poorly executed ‘revelation’ late in the piece that comes off as a cheap trick rather than the intended reasoning why.
Where Whitney falls down is what it leaves out, brushes past or under-represents. For me, dear reader, the tragic tale of Whitney Houston is actually the tale of Robyn Crawford. Crawford herself has refused to speak publicly about her time with Houston, a friendship forged before the singer was a star and one that, in my opinion, is the real beating heart of the whole affair. Her absence from Whitney (which leaves Houston family members to criticise her) is an exposed achilles heel that it can never recover from. Irrespective of her lesbianism, Crawford had Houston’s heart and soul and protected her – even the footage contained here can’t deny it.
Bobby Brown gets a get-out-of-jail-free card here. He dodges the drugs questions, never gets questioned on his well documented domestic abuse or his unfaithfulness. Macdonald avoids it all.
Bobbi Christina Brown gets nowhere near the level of representation as her daughter which so richly deserves. Her life is just as tragic.
Whitney Houston’s career itself is completely brushed over. It goes up to The Bodyguard and then just wants to talk about her downfall. There’s no mention of Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife, I Look To You, One Wish or Just Whitney. The film is far too interested in the darker parts of the star.
Perhaps Houston’s story is too big for a feature documentary? But, much like that extraordinarily talented performers too short life, Whitney barrels through the narrative far too focussed on what its handlers want to say about her downfall, omitting the voices that needed to be heard, instead opting for how important (or impudent) they were in her life.
Just remember – Whitney Houston was an absolute juggernaut of a performer. And that’s how she should be remembered.
WHITNEY is in CINEMAS NOW!