When Whitney Houston died in 2012, the news was at once incomprehensible and expected. After a long public decline of her health, personal life and music, as well as a troubling battle with drugs that played out on covers of tabloids and in infamous interviews, it was both inevitable and enormously tragic. She remains one of the most successful singers of all time, an absolute powerhouse and cultural icon. For someone with so much success, what could have gone so wrong?
It takes no less than an Oscar-winning documentarian, Kevin Macdonald, who has taken on terror attacks and harrowing expeditions (“One Day in September,” “Touching the Void”), to tackle the life story of Houston on film. His “Whitney” is daring both emotionally and aesthetically, and although it is his interpretation, it gets to a kind of truth about Houston the public has never known before.
Aiding him in the task is a cadre of her closest family members, friends and trusted allies, including her mother, Cissy Houston, her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, as well as her brothers and former employees Gary Garland and Michael Houston. It has been reported that some of Houston’s family members are upset about the documentary, which is raw and revealing. Her brothers are particularly candid about the partying on the road, and the struggle with addiction they share with their sister.
Macdonald carefully explores the parts of Whitney’s life that we do know or have speculated about. We witness the cultivation of her tremendous talent by her mother, Cissy Houston, growing up in New Jersey and her father John’s political career. Carefully coached and managed, with model good looks and an unreal voice, she skyrocketed to unprecedented success. Like most stars, she was dogged by rumors about her love life, including her sexuality, and the film’s subjects confirm Whitney’s queerness and her relationship with close friend Robyn.
Macdonald marks the eras and visualizes Houston’s place in culture with dizzying, near-experimental sequences, editing together her greatest performances and appearances interwoven with pop culture and political moments. It places Houston in context and gives the audience a benchmark for the whirlwind that was her life and career. But there’s a surreal quality to these sequences, too, emphasizing the wildness of the ride that wouldn’t stop.
The accounts start to diverge as the film shows Houston falling into a dark abyss of drug abuse with Brown, and Macdonald simply lets the subjects state their truth. But a picture emerges of a woman who used substances as a coping mechanism and simply didn’t want to stop. Much of the footage, from interviews and home videos, is harrowing, and some of the most devastating accounts concern her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who grew up with her parents on the road and died just three years after her mother.
All the while, we’re searching for answers, for the why. She was so talented, beautiful and successful, what was her pain? Late in the film Macdonald posits a theory through testimony from family and friends of sexual abuse at the hands of an aunt, singer Dee Dee Warwick. That confession is something of a release, but it doesn’t fully explain everything. Answers are never easy, especially with a woman, a performer, as complex and singular as Whitney Houston. And while “Whitney” depicts all the highs and lows of her life with a searing honesty, so much of what we take away is just how special she was.
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