Our morbid fascination with rise and fall narratives is entrenched in the culture and all-too-common tragic stories about stardom and pop figures practically beg for cross-examined relitigation. The sad tale of pop R&B icon Whitney Houston is no different and the cultural mourning is still being processed through film and TV. Houston’s story has already yielded 2015’s TV movie “Whitney” and one documentary, “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” made all of just one year ago.
While Houston’s complex personality and inner demons fascinate filmmaker Kevin MacDonald most, his sprawling “Whitney” never wades into the exploitative, instead delivers an affectionate and deeply compassionate film that refuses to play it safe. Having already tackled one musical icon with his 2012 Bob Marley documentary (“Marley”), MacDonald knows something about rock docs and utilizing never-before-seen archival footage in “Whitney” he creates a sprawling, but moving portrait of talented flame that burned out far too soon.
Daughter of soul singer Cissy Houston, a backup singer for Aretha Franklin, and niece of Dionne Warwick, the iconic Whitney Houston stormed through the 1980s music charts with her staggering, soulful voice and a charming personality that enchanted the world. Not only did she help redefine pop music as an African-American trailblazer, she re-popularized the solo artist at a time when band-music dominated the charts. However, drugs derailed her career and, tragically and unfairly, turned her into a running joke for the press. For the last two decades of her life, Houston lived in a dark place, most of it shared with then-husband Bobby Brown.
Endorsed by the Houston family, MacDonald’s doc doesn’t soft-pedal its approach aiming to get to the bottom of her downward spiral and a life that ended in 2012 at the age of 48 from a drug overdose. A kind of sister film to the powerful Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy,” MacDonald, using archival footage, also concentrates on the insidious darkness that slowly creeps through with drug abuse, the toxic influence of a spouse, a family that cares more about money than well-being, and how some of the most tortured, brilliant souls can fall prey to such cancers.
Not all the movie is a melodrama. “Whitney” features no shortage of musical moments that remind you just how powerful a figure she was at her peak. Houston’s famous rendition of the star-spangled banner at the Super Bowl and the lead up to it sends chills down the spine. There’s a passage where she became the first American star to perform in South Africa, in front of 200,000 fans is also indelibly moving.
The movie’s biggest shocking revelation is a disturbing one: the surprising admission from Houston’s aunt Mary Jones, who worked as her assistant (and found Whitney dead in a Beverly Hilton bathtub), that the late Dee Dee Warwick, younger sister of Dionne, had sexually abused the singer as a child between the ages of 6-9. The disclosure of abuse only intensifies the tragedy of Houston’s life, which was also marred by a self-destructive relationship with soul singer Bobby Brown, a 14-year affair that ended in divorce but left lasting scars. Candidly interviewed in the documentary, Brown foolishly maintains that “drugs didn’t kill Whitney Houston.”
MacDonald initially paints a picture of a carefree woman who loved sex, with both men and women, but was never open about her bisexuality, the doc suggesting her abuse tainted her sexuality. Houston’s family isn’t left unscathed in the doc’s upending examination of her life; “Whitney” details how the star was trapped by her clan, by the fame, and Bobby Brown’s insecure jealousy over her popularity eclipsing his own. A heartbreaking portion of the film focuses on the lack of love Brown and Houston gave to their late daughter Kristi, who died of a drug overdose not long after her mother’s death.
Respectfully, MacDonald never reduces Houston’s downfall to one event or factor, instead, accumulating evidence about a dysfunctional life, gnawed at by a toxic environment and corrosive addictions. Gripping on-camera testimonials do not duck on sensitive matters, especially when MacDonald confronts Bobby Brown, who comes off as a real dirtbag.
Running close to two hours, the insightful, effectively assembled film nevertheless feels briskly compelling. Stripping the “I Will Always Love You,” singer away from sensationalist tabloid dirt that marred her life, MacDonald’s thoughtfulness is arguably its standout element. The finesse with which he crafts his doc makes for, quite simply, an absorbing and moving portrayal of an unforgettable heartrending figure. [B+]