Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Whitney Houston was a brilliantly talented woman who became the most popular singer in the world in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her demons, turning into a tabloid fixture and comedy punchline in the 2000s, before passing away in 2012. The documentary Whitney is a surprisingly fast-paced account of her sudden rise and slow, painful fall from the perspective of her friends and family. It is a very sad, sometimes powerful, story that occasionally toes the line of exploitation, but never quite crosses it.
Whitney (117 minutes not including the end credits) mainly focuses on her years as a performer. However, it periodically circles back to her childhood in an effort to analyze what led to her self-destructive choices. The early portions deal with her family life and set up the important themes that dominate her story. Then it goes into her quick rise up the charts and explosion into one of the most well-known celebrities on the planet. Finally comes her depressing collapse into drugs, which feels like it takes up a lot of the film. That is the section that is borderline exploitative. There is so much talk of her drug use, but then that makes sense since it took up a lot of her life.
In addition to the new interviews with the people who knew her best, there is also a ton of footage of Houston performing, being interviewed or in private. One of the more interesting aspects of Whitney is the idea that nobody really knew what was going on in her head. There is an attempt to piece together numerous theories but, in the end, she remains a mystery. So, while in the videos of her early on she appears friendly and shy, the clips later in the film hint at a darkness she was unable to overcome. I am not sure if the impressions I was getting from them were accurate, or if I only felt that way because of their placement in the movie. Editing is an effective tool to manipulate an audience into feeling a certain way, and Whitney definitely has a good control of its tone.
The major question I was asking myself after I left the theater was what is Kevin Macdonald’s film trying to get me to think about Whitney Houston? That she was a wasted talent? That she destroyed herself? That her parents and friends and Bobby Brown led her down the wrong path? Am I supposed to feel anger or sadness or pity? At various times it seems like Macdonald is aiming for all of these reactions. Perhaps his point is there are multiple interpretations of her life and death and possibly no one thing that can entirely explain her. The result is that Whitney can be kind of overwhelming, but it is successful at peeling away the layers of star persona and tabloid gossip to look at the real person. What it shows is that maybe the actual tragedy in this story is that Whitney Houston never figured out who the real person was.
3½ out of 5
Directed by Kevin Macdonald