No matter whether you grew up with her, or were born later and only able to look back on her legacy, it is still impossible to escape Whitney Houston's impact. Making sense of the true troubled story of her life, however, is a different story. The saturation of stories that have been written about the late singer who passed away over six years ago makes it impossible to see the true picture, with every outlet containing their own angle and auteurism on her life and self-destructive nature.
Director Kevin Macdonald’s aim is to see behind the music and the stardom, away from the carefully crafted and manufactured portrayal of her label, but also to detach itself from the tabloid sensationalism. Whitney is a documentary aiming to be grounded in reality. From the offset, Whitney opens with the camp bright synths of I Wanna Dance With Somebody juxtaposed against the 1967 Newark race riots - the backdrops of Houston’s childhood.
Who better to tell the experiences than those closest to her? Family, friends, and industry-insiders who knew Houston as her pet name Nippy recount anecdotes of her character and personality alongside backstage and intimate amateur family videos. From her upbringing in the church, to her landmark record deal, to taking over the airwaves and defining a generation with her signature sound, the woman behind the fame is laid bare.
The epochs in Houston's career are punctuated throughout the film and are commanding testimonies, particularly her rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” for the 1991 Super Bowl, on why she became the stratospheric superstar that she was. For every triumph, however, junctures on her trajectory in her career are also pinpointed. The jeering and booing at the Soul Awards for her sound being whitewashed and packaged up for Middle America is framed as a turning point of Houston life.
Macdonald understands that for all the potential backstage footage that can be unearthed and all the possible interviews he can conduct, concretising a definitive reason on why Houston was so destructive in her behaviour cannot be achieved. The reasons for her reluctance to escape her damaging relationship, both with her ex-husband Bobby Brown and moreover, her addiction to drugs, are ones that will always be shrouded in secrecy. Macdonald even concedes a failed interview attempt to ask Brown about her relationship with drugs, which he rebukes had anything to do with her death. Contributing reasons are left open-ended for the viewer, however, exploring all these themes also leads to the film feeling overdrawn at a slightly lethargic 122 minutes.
Despite this, particularly upon the subject of Houston’s demise, the revelations about her relationship to her family are the most telling. Their nuances in responses to hard-hitting questions about Houston’s demons and character flaws are anything but hagiographic. Confessions between Houston's relationship with key figures of her life such as her father and former best friend Robyn Crawford (who is notably absent as one of the interviewees) become more poignant as the film progresses. Perhaps most of all most shocking is an eye-opening revelation of her childhood that comports many of Whitney’s struggles and gives reason to the grounds that lead to her downfall and death.
Regardless of its sobering themes and unavoidable heartbreaking ending, Whitney is still a celebration of the singer’s legacy. To decade-long admirers and to those who are truly are unaware of her impact, Whitney hits the right notes and stands up as a profound introspective look into the troubled tapestry of the icon’s life and career.