REVIEW – ‘Whitney’

It’s been six years since we lost the greatest voice of our generation. Or perhaps any generation, for that matter. Despite knowing how this tale tragically ends, it’s hard not to hope for a happy ending while watching Kevin Macdonald’s brilliant but heartbreaking documentary Whitney. The film is equal parts entertaining and devastating, mapping Whitney Houston’s meteoric rise to fame, her tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown, her continual battles with drug addiction, and the tragic downfall which led to her untimely death in a Beverly Hills Hotel bathtub at the age of 48.

Macdonald hits you in the stomach right from the opening moments of his documentary. Juxtapositioning audio from an interview with Houston in which she describes a recurring dream where the devil is trying to steal her soul (“I am always running from the giant. I wake up always exhausted from running.”) with footage from the vivacious music video for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” featuring the wide-eyed and virtuous young popstar, Macdonald immediately captures the jarring contrast between Houston’s public persona and the debilitating battles she constantly faced with her inner demons.

The documentary obviously serves as a grandiose tribute to the singer and her impeccable career. Given it’s been several decades since the true height of Houston’s fame, it’s easy to forget what she achieved in the 1980s and 90s including being the first and only artist in music history to have seven consecutive No. 1 hits. Her iconic talent is firmly on display when the documentary covers her legendary performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991. Macdonald highlights how Houston daringly reworked the arrangement of the American national anthem (which some considered almost sacrilegious), recording her updated 4/4 tempo version in just one take.

When she delivered a stirring performance at the Tampa Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, it was a moment in music and television history, with the subsequent charity single release going on to sell 1.2 million copies. If you ever needed proof this woman was a stone-cold superstar, you just have to take a moment to appreciate how she managed to sell over a million copies of a song from 1814 that most Americans have heard hundreds of times in their lives. It landed at a time when race relations in America were on a knife’s edge, but Houston’s anthem genuinely united a nation. That’s the mark of her deep impact and resonance.

Whitney also touches on Houston’s dalliance with the film industry, most notably her breakthrough debut performance in The Bodyguard. The film is likely remembered by most for its multi-platinum selling soundtrack or the epic phenomenon that was the lead single “I Will Always Love You” and rightly so. The album and the track were (and still are) sensational pop music. But Macdonald wisely shines a light on just how groundbreaking the film was for its time, given it starred an African-American leading lady and centred on her romance with a white male. For a film in 1992 to feature an interracial love story was all but unheard of. An interview with Houston’s co-star Kevin Costner underlines why it deserves more credit than its given.

But showcasing Houston’s incredible career is only one part of this documentary. These moments exist to emphasise her talents but also remind the audience just how high she rose before ultimately spiralling straight back down. While still celebrating her life, Macdonald is ultimately seeking answers to how and why such a gifted and talented performer could seemingly throw it all away. Through intimate interviews with Houston’s immediate family, close friends, and those who assisted her career, we begin to learn more about the troubled soul, known affectionately as “Nippy” by those closest to her.

While Houston often maintained her upbringing was nothing short of perfect, under the care of her doting parents and spending her carefree days singing in the church choir, Whitney paints a decidedly different tale. Houston was relentlessly bullied at school. Her father John was often absent and a serial philanderer. Her gospel-singer mother Cissy engaged in a torrid affair with the church’s minister, leaving Whitney to feel disillusioned with the church. Both parents’ adultery ultimately led to a divorce that deeply damaged their daughter, leading Whitney to flee the family home at age 18 to live with her closest friend, Robyn Crawford.

When Houston signed with Arista Records, producer Clive Davis was determined to package her as a genuine popstar, as opposed to the gospel and R&B music generally synonymous with black performers. This decision proved costly for Houston’s reputation amongst her own African-American community. The “whitewashing” of her sound was rejected by the black community, and she was consequently labelled “Whitey Houston” by prominent African-American figures, leading to Houston being famously booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. It was on this very evening she would meet her future husband, Bobby Brown.

Brown was the bad-boy of the black music scene, and Houston fell instantly in love with his brash bravado and cocky swagger. While those interviewed in the documentary are adamant Houston’s feelings for Brown were genuine, his reputation amongst the black community gave her the opportunity for redemption and credibility within her own ranks. But the relationship was opportunistic on both sides, with Brown’s connection to Houston furthering his lagging career for years to come. It was to become a toxic relationship filled with infidelity, accusations of harassment and abuse, and the beginnings of the drug and alcohol addiction that would ultimately claim Houston’s life. Strangely, Brown’s brief appearance in the documentary consists of him vehemently denying Houston had an addiction problem or that drugs caused her tragic death.

But the real opportunism from Houston’s eventual marriage to Brown was to quell the constant rumours of her sexuality, namely due to her close friendship with Robyn Crawford. Crawford, who does not appear in the film, had been a pillar of strength for Houston since she was young, and the documentary is clear with its implication the two were more than just close friends. Crawford fiercely protected Houston and was ultimately a safety barrier against those who wanted to take advantage of the rising star, namely her greedy family members. With Houston determined to uphold her wholesome heterosexual image and Brown becoming increasingly controlling of who his now-wife associated with, Crawford had no choice but to leave. Her absence from the documentary suggests it’s a decision she still regrets.

With Crawford gone, it becomes painfully clear Houston was left exposed to those around her. Her inner circle began to see her as a cash machine, taking constant advantage of her increasing wealth, while consistently turning a blind eye to her out-of-control drug problem. At one point, Cissy gets Whitney to agree to rehab, only to have John quickly pull her out of the program so her touring schedule would not be affected. It’s also revealed John was skimming money from Whitney’s earnings for himself. When she finally found the strength to cut him out of her life, John subsequently sued his own daughter in a nasty lawsuit for $100 million.

The saddest and most shocking revelation comes late in the documentary, as Houston’s longtime assistant Mary Jones reveals Whitney was repeatedly sexually molested as a child by her cousin and caretaker, Dee Dee Warwick. It’s a missing piece of a complicated puzzle that may provide further insight into Houston’s troubled psyche. Her desperate attempts to mask her pain with fame, fortune, and drugs seem to make much more sense when you understand the trauma she experienced as a young girl, especially given how Houston kept this abuse a secret for decades. It pushed away from accepting her sexuality and instead strive for a happy “normal” family life, particularly when she gave birth to her daughter Bobbi Kristina. But Houston was so horrendously damaged, she could barely take care of herself, let alone a child.

It’s difficult to watch the home videos of Houston’s attempts to become a doting mother, while still maintaining a gruelling touring schedule and addictively holding on to her party lifestyle. We know the tragic fate of Bobbi Kristina, making it extremely uncomfortable to see how doomed she ultimately was. As Macdonald moves to the latter stages of Houston’s life, it’s also tough to see the truest low points of her once-illustrious career. The voice is all but gone. She looks terribly emaciated. Her behaviour is increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Her denial of drug use in that infamous Diane Sawyer “crack is whack” interview. She becomes the cruel laughing stock of late-night television and nothing more than tabloid fodder.

All of this occurs while her music producers and colleagues deny they had any knowledge anything was wrong. The clearest message of Whitney is one of pathetic denial from those around her. They knew what was happening, but no one wanted to stop the cash rolling in. No one wanted a pause to her career so she could get well. At the end of the day, no one had any interest in Whitney Houston getting clean. Her addictions may have been her own doing, but they were fed by those who should have been looking out for her.

As devastating as Whitney can be, it still stands as a deeply personal and emotionally powerful portrait of a tortured and fractured artist who gave the world her all. Like all great documentaries, Macdonald never shies away from showing the brutal reality of his subject. There’s very little gloss here, creating a piece of cinema that’s authentic and unflinching in its depiction of the perils of fame. For all her incredible glory, Whitney Houston had equal lashings of pain. She almost had it all and we will always love her.

★★★★☆
Distributor: Transmission Films
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producers: Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn, Lisa Erspamer
Cinematography: Nelson Hume
Music: Adam Wiltzie
Editor: Sam Rice-Edwards
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: 26th July 2018 (Australia)

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