The new Whitney doco turns the singer's life into a psychological detective tale

by James Robins / 31 July, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Whitney documentary

The arc of singer Whitney Houston’s life was fundamentally tragic. Overcoming the poverty of her New Jersey upbringing, Houston stunned and swayed with a voice of great passionate force and hits which achieved 80s pop dominance: How Will I Know, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and later, the powerhouse version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You.

Then it fell apart. An embarrassing mess of cocaine and booze. A tempestuous marriage to notorious philanderer Bobby Brown. A daughter neglected. In February 2012, she was found face-down in a bathtub. A talent wasted, and a spirit snuffed out.

This story has been told before in Nick Bloomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? released last year. But Whitney, a new film by veteran documentary maker Kevin Macdonald, whose Marley from 2012 is the definitive screen biography of the reggae star, carries the approval of Houston’s own family.

Many of them were witnesses to the star’s decline, and they appear here in self-absolving mode, trying to pass off any kind of responsibility for her destructive habits. Cue a belligerent Bobby Brown himself: “Drugs had nothing to do with her.” Or a defensive LA Reid, record label boss, swearing that he never knew of any addiction.

At times, Whitney feels less like a celebration than a post-mortem, angling towards her doom instead of revelling in her qualities or talent. Such a trajectory demands a conclusive answer – a rationale for Houston’s long plummet through self-abuse. And in the final act, we get one: the revelation that she was molested as a child by a female family member.

This is a kind of coup de grâce, an all-encompassing explanation, as if Houston’s fate was a mystery in need of resolution. Macdonald deserves some respect for coaxing this uncomfortable truth from his subjects, but his mistake is to assume that every bad thing in Houston’s life was a direct result of childhood trauma.

Whitney stands in stark relief to Amy, Asif Kapadia’s harrowing retelling of Amy Winehouse’s career, which chose to forgo the interjections of insiders, focusing on her voice and songwriting skill so that her loss becomes all the more poignant. Or compare it again to Liz Garbus’s energetic 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which placed the life of Nina Simone in its proper context of upheaval and revolution.

Houston herself is strangely absent amidst this war waged between talking heads, glimpsed only in small snatches of home video and frank interviews.

In one private moment we see her playfully roasting contemporaries like Janet Jackson and Paul Abdul. But these moments are far too few. What we get is a vetted and contested version of Whitney and her life – a heavily filtered portrait robbed of idiosyncrasies.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed limit and people weren't happy
102497 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z World

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed lim…

by Cathrin Schaer

A Government-initiated working group suggested putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways to lower emissions and make roads safer. Big mistake.

Read more
Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's brilliant buffoonery
102440 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Movies

Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's br…

by James Robins

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are lifelong devotees to comic duo Laurel and Hardy – and it shows.

Read more
Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on ending up in my books)
102594 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Books

Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on endin…

by Colin Hogg

With his second book about Sam Hunt proving a hit, Colin Hogg ponders why so much of his writing career has been inspired by his mates.

Read more
Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award
102345 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot P…

by Metro

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award and be in to win dinner for two.

Read more
Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri dieback disease
102578 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri di…

by Bob Harvey

The closer you get to a kauri, the more you realise you are looking at one of the wonders of the planet.

Read more
National’s failure to grasp climate change a major challenge for NZ
102598 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

National’s failure to grasp climate change a major…

by Steve Abel

National's Bluegreen wing are set to hold their annual conference this weekend. Greenpeace’s Steve Abel will be there to challenge the party.

Read more
The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te reo on television
102606 2019-02-20 22:10:47Z Education

The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te r…

by Vomle Springford

Lidu Gong first started learning te reo in bed.

Read more
Win a double pass to Everybody Knows
102573 2019-02-20 13:19:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Everybody Knows

by The Listener

Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows is a gripping new thriller about the fissures and fault lines that can tear a family apart.

Read more