Award winning Scottish director Kevin Macdonald shares the tragically tumultuous story of the life and death of iconic star, Whitney Houston. Macdonald’s depiction of the legend is far from the first (I only have to cast my mind back to 2017 to recall documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me) however, Macdonald’s Whitney portrays the (in)famous story in a more complete fashion, allowing for a slightly more conclusive glance at Houston’s calamitous life both on and off stage. A reason for this more finalised spotlight could be that it is the first Whitney Houston documentary to be authorised by the estate, and therefore allows Macdonald access to archival content that elevates the sophistication of Whitney by humanising the star in a way that other presentations have attempted but failed to do.
Houston’s story is one that most of us pop culture savvy people like to think we know, and for the most part we are not wrong, but Whitney surprises, sickens, shocks, and scandalizes us with graphic images, storytelling, and confessions from a plethora of interesting interviews from those closest to Houston.
The film is richly contextualised with stylised montages of worldwide events, from politics to pop culture to shameful news clips. The film opens with a cleverly stripped back opening to Houston’s first single ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. Macdonald intertwines clips from the mammoth pop video with the first of the timeline indicating montages – this one feels more personal to Houston as we see clips from the Newark ghetto in which she and her family grew up, and in which, it is revealed, Houston was heavily bullied due to her light skin. These images are followed by young Houston’s voice telling the audience that she used to have nightmares in which she was being chased by what her mum would tell her were demons, and that she would “wake up exhausted”. This technique is mirrored at the end of the film, as we hear of Houston’s grievous death, and this cyclical form indicates that perhaps these demons that were chasing Houston in her dreams haunted her from her childhood until her final demise.
A compellingly new aspect to the story told in Whitney is how much culpability Macdonald places on the shoulders of the documentary’s titular protagonist. The narrative we have often heard about Houston is that she became addicted to drugs due to pressure from her R&B singer husband Bobby Brown, however during Macdonald’s interview with Brown, the topic of drugs is brushed over and Brown refuses to speak on the matter. In the subsequent Q&A with Macdonald, an audience member asks if that was emotionally frustrating as Bobby Brown played a massive role in getting Houston hooked on drugs, and the director responds in defence of Bobby stating that Houston was addicted long before she met Brown, and that she and her upbringing are responsible for her own actions. Whilst this exploration into the life and death of Houston is more unfeigned than those before it due to the access granted to director and producers of Whitney, I find that the film is not l without its shortcomings. The most prominent of which is in its portrayal of Robyn Crawford: Houston’s former best friend and heavily insinuated to be her first love. Unfortunately, Crawford declined to be interviewed for the documentary and thus the only story we can piece together about her is from the other people in Houston’s life, many of whom struggle to hide their homophobic disgust at Robyn and the unfettered influence she had on Houston’s life which led to jealousy from Bobby Brown and disdain from Houston’s father and brother. During the interviews, Macdonald uncovers that Houston and her brother suffered sex abuse as children at the hands of a family member, but disparagingly this childhood trauma is indicated to be the reason for Houston’s supposed queerness later in life, an insolent accusation which the filmmaker does little to challenge.
Whitney does, however, reveal a tremendous volume of guilt from all those close to her interviewed by Macdonald, and whilst the audience are invited to witness never-before-seen footage and information about the singing sensation, I can’t help but feel that Houston’s enigmatic and troubled life is one that we might never get an unabridged and comprehensive look at.
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[Ellen Magee – @mondaymagee]