Film Review: Whitney Looks Back to the Start to Understand What Happened

on July 07, 2018, 4:00pm

On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston was found dead at 49 years old. With her passing also came the genuine end of an era, a time when the greatest pop superstars were larger than life, larger than mere mortals. After all, these days, we demand constant access of our celebrities. If they’re not putting every piece of themselves in public for our consumption, some of the more savage among us become actively enraged, demanding to know why they, as a fan, don’t have more ownership over the artist. This process has been proven to be quite literally lethal over and over again throughout the years, and yet, we’ve built entire media empires around it. Back in the 1980s, when Whitney Houston rose to the rarefied heights of global superstardom, the cottage industry around privacy violation was only developing its sea legs. In that respect, as a documentary, Whitney is able to chronicle one of the first victims of a 24-hour news cycle that needed a hero, and needed even more to watch one fall.

Kevin Macdonald‘s film about the late singer often recalls Amy, Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Oscar winner about the turbulent life of fallen songstress Amy Winehouse. Like that film, Whitney is assembled in such a way where Macdonald largely allows Houston to speak for herself, along with many of the other primary players in her life. If there are a few more talking heads in this instance, with Macdonald allowing Houston’s surviving family to speak at length, Whitney still chiefly functions as a reclamation of history and personhood in Houston’s own words. While much of the dialogue put forth by the documentary focuses on the numerous ways in which she was let down by those around her, and by her own troubles as well, Whitney uses archival footage to re-contextualize the singer’s later years (especially her fraught 2000s) as not the cartoonish meltdown of a pop diva it was sold for being at the time, but as a painful reminder that the people onto which we pin our hopes and dreams are still people. The film opens with Houston herself chirping about how “the devil is trying to get me, but he never gets me,” and there’s a rueful irony drawn out of that point throughout the entire documentary.

Macdonald breezes through the early days, for the most part. Born to a family of singers, Houston was treated as special by her mother Cissy from the very beginning, along with the rest of her family. They knew that her talent was once-in-a-generation, and fostered her as such, pushing her into gospel music and a devout, clean-seeming lifestyle. There was no time for parties or boys for the young Whitney, or “Nippy” as she was known to the Houston family, even as her mother was having an affair with the minister and her cousins were introducing her to light drugs and drinking by the age of 16. She was going to be a star, and Cissy was going to get her there; it’s noted by multiple parties that “her mother was hard on her.”

Before long, the film moves on to the main event: Whitney’s rapid ascent, fueled by hits like “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” to the forefront of pop culture. Macdonald sees this for the cultural revolution it was: in Whitney, the lily-white ’80s musical mainstream had its first true crossover star. She was a traditional enough vocalist to draw in older fans, had enough of an urbane edge to feel fresh in a landscape dominated by homogenous mall-pop singers, and had the unadulterated talent to become an indisputable superstar. She was sexual and wholesome, fresh and familiar, both black enough and light-skinned enough to draw in every imaginable audience. She was the consumate pop singer for the first era of American music entirely dominated by them, right down to the point at which the industry chewed her up and spat her back out.

If Macdonald makes haste in reaching the peak of her career, occasionally at the expense of some necessary insight about who the young Houston was when she first began to struggle personally, much of Whitney is devoted to what that personal struggle became when she was suddenly one of the most famous people in the world. As her drug use became increasingly apparent, Houston became at once a tabloid superstar and one of its most commonplace punchlines, and Whitney (like Amy) offers a scathing indictment of the cultural laziness and cruelty that leads to there being a market for such a thing. There’s a brutal irony to the fact that her life was beginning to deteriorate privately even as The Bodyguard made her a domestic phenomenon, and Whitney spends much of its runtime attempting to understand what led her there.

How it goes about that will undoubtedly be a source of some contention for audiences, given that Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown is invited to speak as a key witness. It’ll be hardly shocking to most that Brown has little of value to add himself; he mostly remarks upon how the media was telling lies, and that he cared more about Whitney than all of his public conduct over the past 20 years might suggest. However, Macdonald draws out a more biting point through archival footage and interviews with her family; where Brown sees himself as an equivalent victim, they take care to establish him as the kind of petty, less talented hanger-on who dragged Houston down to his own level for fear that she’d spend the rest of their lives eclipsing him. Some of the most devastating footage sees Houston doing exactly that, slurrily reproaching journalists for daring to question him or their relationship.

Whitney is made from a place of genuine admiration for Houston, but it’s also bracingly candid about addressing the realities of her final years with minimal gloss. Her relationship with Robyn Crawford, and the latter’s subsequent disappearance from her life, is addressed through the prism of the speculation about Houston’s sexuality that carried on for years during the height of her popularity. Likewise, when Macdonald introduces some genuinely painful revelations late in the film about where exactly her history of substance abuse may have began, the denial offered by some of the film’s talking heads is overcome by the impact of some of the people who loved her most telling her truths when she no longer can. Whitney can’t undo the past, and it knows this, but it can retroactively stand up against the hack comedians and lazy journalists who turned her tragic decline into monologue gags.

By the time Whitney reaches the point it inevitably must, Macdonald’s film stands as an archive of how preventable Houston’s passing truly was. When she’s wasting millions of Arista’s money on a record never to be recorded, or conducting interviews while wearing sunglasses big enough to cover her orbital bones, Whitney makes the point that the signs were in front of us all along. It’s a painful assemblage, but also an essential one, a documentary about the sins we’ve committed and continue to indulge. It’s also a call to stop, and to say that we can be better than this, somewhere later on down the line.


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