Whitney: Family-Sanctioned Doc Tells Familiar Tale of Success and Excess

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B

Watching the new Whitney Houston documentary, titled Whitney, I couldn’t help but wonder why I felt unmoved compared to the Amy Winehouse doc from a few years back, which left me sobbing and deeply, deeply sorry about the tragic turn of events. 

That’s not an arbitrary comparison: the parallels between the two women are striking. 

Whitney and father John Houston: he couldn't count the money fast enough.

Whitney and father John Houston: he couldn't count the money fast enough.

Both were preternaturally gifted singers who seemed to arrive fully formed. Both had odious, grasping fathers keen to leverage their daughters’ status and wealth, and both had petulant, insecure partners who felt threatened by their fame, thus serving as wiling gateways (or at least, enablers) into hard drug use. And both Houston and Winehouse ended their once-glittering careers as tabloid jokes. 

Yet director Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, though rich with interviews from family members — the film was made with the full cooperation of the Houston family — as well as colleagues and other stakeholders, comes across as a well-organized rehash of what we already know, a concerted effort to restore Houston’s good name. 

The guiding pulse of Whitney’s life seems obscured rather than illuminated by these revelations and by footage of her own wildly erratic behaviour in the end. Asif Kapadia’s AMY from 2015, which also drew on the recollection of people close in her orbit, managed to locate Winehouse’s interior voice among the ashes. Maybe a lesser-known story approached with fewer expectations is easier to tell.

Still, four jarring scenes in Whitney prove the exception. In one, Houston and husband Bobby Brown are together in studio, trying to cut a duet. The chasm between their talents could not be clearer. She opens her mouth and an aural rainbow shoots skyward. Brown grunts and a piece of coal drops to the ground. 

Elsewhere, Brown flatly refuses to address the drug issue. Pressed by Macdonald, who insists reticence on that front will deprive the viewer of crucial insight into the final years of Houston’s life, Brown shrugs, clinging tight to the selfish indifference that helped to sink the mother of his child before his eyes.

In another uncomfortable scene, L.A. Reid, the record company exec, draws unintentional laughter from the audience by declaring he was unaware of Houston’s escalating drug abuse. It’s a chilling statement of the variety that either he was either too stupid or too indifferent to wield that much power. Either way, unfit. And then there is the alleged sexual abuse which is the film’s bombshell (by now much-reported) reveal.

As family members, notably brother Gary Houston claims, first cousin Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne) molested he and Whitney as kids, fomenting Whitney Houston’s confused sexuality and placing her on the path to destruction. Houston’s mother Cissy and Dionne Warwick have since published a joint statement saying those claims are “unfathomable.” Whatever the truth,  Whitney Houston’s life went sideways despite her gargantuan talent, that much is clear. 

Whitney is worth seeing. Her voice — that soaring, gravity-defying, positively boundless instrument — was otherworldly in its power. It is beautifully showcased here, from the gooseflesh-raising “Star Spangled Banner” performance at 1991’s Super Bowl XXV during the Persian Gulf War (which actually spawned a hit single) to the ubiquitous cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from 1992’s The Bodyguard opposite Kevin Costner, which cemented her status as a global superstar and beat Celine Dion to the "kill me please" song-fatigue finish line long before the theme from Titanic. 

Crucially, Macdonald (see also The Last King of Scotland, Marley, State of Play) doesn’t stint on the train-wreck aspects of her career: the infamous Diane Sawyer interview, disastrous, flabby late-career performances, and yes, those tabloid images of a gaunt, wild-eyed, and clearly tripping Houston. 

Whether audiences feel greater insight into her dreams and demons as a result is somewhat less certain.

Whitney. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Opens wide July 13.