I‘m not a huge follower of pop music, but even I know this much: Whitney Houston was one of the greatest vocalists America has ever produced. I also know this: her star burnt brightly but much too briefly, and after a meteoric rise to fame and a long succession of hits, her life and career took a downward turn that ended with her death at the age of 48.
Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney captures the key moments in Houston’s rise and fall, and provides a plausible narrative to stitch it all together. In it, he has assembled an extraordinary collection of archival footage of Houston performing, from her 1983 television debut (which is heart-breaking in retrospect—she was all talent and promise then, with a beautiful voice and an innocence that couldn’t help but capture your heart) to her ill-fated final tour, when she was tired and burned out, her on-stage performances suffered as a result, and audiences and the press responded accordingly.
Even more important, Macdonald obtained extraordinary access to Houston’s relatives and business associates, and earned their trust sufficiently that most offer candid and sometimes scathing assessments of some of the factors that we can assume contributed to her decline and tragically early death. The one glaring exception to this general rule of candor is Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown, but his evasions and denials may speak more clearly of the probable role he played in her life than would a frank and straightforward recitation of facts.
Whitney is the kind of documentary that will certainly please those who are fans of the singer, because it includes lots of musical clips from the years when she was at her best. You don’t have to be a Houston fan to love it, however, because Whitney offers plenty to interest those who know her primarily as a name on the pop charts and, later, in the tabloids. I’m in the latter camp myself—prior to watching this documentary, my strongest association regarding Houston was my memory about how one of her hits, “I Will Always Love You,” followed me to Europe and back one winter—even in Iceland and Luxembourg, it was constantly on the airwaves. So I didn’t come in a Houston expert, but left with a much increased appreciation for her voice, as well as a greater understanding of the circumstances of her life and death. There’s a whole lot of information packed into this film, much of it not common knowledge, and it offers much food for thought regarding celebrity culture and the cult of the perfect family.
Macdonald, whose varied directorial resume includes both The Last King of Scotland (2006) and Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016), avoids two pitfalls to which celebrity-focused documentaries are particularly prone. Although there’s plenty of both celebration and truth-telling in Whitney, it offers neither a superficial, laudatory view of an admittedly great talent, nor a lurid expose focusing on everything that went wrong with her life. Instead, it offers a complex and nuanced look at a great talent who left us much too soon. | Sarah Boslaugh