The second film in as many years about the life and death of superstar Whitney Houston is evidence of our deep fascination with the subject. The arc of Houston’s career followed the classic mold of the celebrity TV bio, bookended by her spectacular and unparalleled professional rise and scandalous and unseemly death in 2012 at the age of 48. Both films have been directed by master documentarians; 2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me by Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac), which is currently airing on Showtime, and this weekend’s theatrical release of Whitney by Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Marley, and the reality-based The Last King of Scotland). Yet, after nearly four hours of exploration by the two films, questions remain. Although the human tragedy is laid bare, neither film clarifies what it was about Houston’s voice and talent that made her so peerless and successful.
Probably no one alive can forget the first time they heard that voice that pierced the silence with the clarity of her timbre and chased the stratosphere with a multi-octave range. The first experience usually raises goosebumps. Just ask her mother Cissy Houston, the church-choir directress and inspirational backup singer for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, and Elvis Presley. Cissy was Whitney’s vocal coach, and ingrained into her daughter the fundamentals of the craft and the knowledge of how to use it to blow the roof off any church – or arena. Ask Clive Davis, the Arista Records maverick who cemented his love for her voice with a record contract. And what of her first album release in 1985, which became the bestselling debut album by a woman in history? To hear her sing was to instantly recognize Whitney’s singularity – a fact that makes her untimely death all the more sorrowful.
For those who only remember Houston as the train-wreck spectacle she devolved into during her latter years, this documentary will do a good job of providing the basic outline of her life. Macdonald talks to much of her family and others who worked with her and knew her. Even though Whitney was initiated and endorsed by the Houston family, her relatives are very open about her childhood, drug use, and insecurities. In contrast, we’re presented with Bobby Brown, who curtly halts conversation when he inexplicably declares that drugs had nothing to do with his wife’s death. Mary Jones, Whitney’s assistant and the one who found her dead, says for the first time on the record that the singer claimed to have been sexually molested by a female relative during her childhood. The only figure missing here is Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s school friend and lover, who stayed by Whitney’s side from the beginning until several years into Whitney and Bobby’s marriage. Macdonald also includes many of the sadder moments in Houston’s career, as when her voice was deemed early in her career to be “not black enough” by figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who dubbed her “Whitey Houston,” or when she was booed at the Soul Train Awards.
Macdonald also weaves in contemporary footage of the times – shots of the Newark riots, Ronald Reagan, the Persian Gulf War – which help place Houston into her milieu. The clips from performances and TV interviews are abundant, as befits a star who came of age along with the MTV era. This film is more probing than conspiracy-seeker Broomfield’s, although neither study fully explains how her life (not to mention that of her only child Bobbi Kristina) ended so piteously. Drug addiction and bad choices are the obvious answers to what caused Houston’s notorious downward spiral. However, the question that no one seems to be asking is how Whitney Houston has come to be remembered more for her tragic demise than for her unrivaled success.
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