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.

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