My heart goes out to anybody who arrives at Kevin Macdonald’s new Whitney Houston documentary expecting a celebration of music and once-in-a-generation talent. Those are both present — the songs, that voice. But they’re heavy with cost. They’re warped, enlisted to indict rather than delight. The goose bumps Houston’s singing gives you in “Whitney” are the goose bumps you get anytime you hear her sing. There’s a clip of her, at 19, on “The Merv Griffin Show” doing “Home” from “The Wiz,” and the chills that come are involuntary. Here was a fever you wanted to catch.
Even at this early point, the movie urges you to think about Houston as someone other than — or in addition to — one of the three or four greatest vocalists in the history of American popular music. It presents her life anew and reconsiders the very private suffering with which she might have lived it. How did someone whose nickname was Nippy, go so suddenly from angel to ghost?
“Whitney” is too funereal to be a party, too sad, strange and dismaying to cheer. Yet, in its grim, guilt-inducing way, the film works, even on the occasions when it’s working against itself. What Mr. Macdonald wants to do is a kind of cultural psychobiography. The movie comprises a range of footage (famous and mostly rare) along with one-on-one interviews with her family and friends and exes and collaborators about her childhood, fame, sexuality, technical ingenuity, drug addiction, and the raising of her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who was also an addict. Houston’s mother, the singer Cissy Houston, her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, and the music executive L. A. Reid seem self-protective in their reticence and deflection. But most participants, like her aunt and personal assistant Mary Jones, gush memories, analysis and feelings.
Together, it all becomes a roiling drama built around Houston’s celebrity. No one person is responsible for her drug-related bathtub drowning in 2012. Guilt here is powerfully diffuse. Yet when one of Houston’s two brothers leans forward and stage-whispers something like, “This family is full of secrets,” it sounds like histrionics. But this family really was. It was rich in lies and charades, too, like Cissy and her ex-husband, John, going out in public as a couple to bolster the wholesome, whiter image they and the Arista records executive Clive Davis wanted for Houston.
Some of the trouble might stem from the years the three Houston kids spent living with relatives in the Newark area while their mother was on tour. We learn that Houston’s drug use actually began as a teenager. Another of the film’s bombshells has already made it to the press, but the film itself isn’t sensational about it. A question of whether she had been sexually abused is casually raised, affirmed then unpacked by several people. And it blows open your perception of Houston as a star, mother, wife, addict and persona. It reframes her unceasingly gossiped about bond with her best friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, so that a question like “Were they lovers?” insults the salvation of the friendship.
This is the second movie in two years about Houston’s demise made by a white British man. Last spring we got “Whitney: Can I Be Me?,” which the tireless gumshoe speculator Nick Broomfield directed with Rudi Dolezal. It was a Swiss Army knife of pointed fingers. That juicy, speculative sensationalism was right for the director of “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie and Tupac.” But even at Mr. Broomfield’s sleaziest some kind of compassion is along for the ride. Mr. Macdonald is a Scotsman who’s moved between meaty nonfiction (“One Day in September,” “Touching the Void,” “Marley”) and trashy melodrama like the Idi Amin blood bath, “The Last King of Scotland.” Their Houston documentaries complement each other in a way that establishes an unhappy genre of pop forensics — Whitney: SVU.
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Source: New York Times