A documentary by Kevin Macdonald. Rated PG
Some real familiarity with Whitney Houston’s recorded repertoire is required to get the most out of Whitney, a two-hour doc that digs into everything but her music. Even true fans may feel cheated by a fairly well-made movie that seems to be missing its own star.
In any case, spending this much time with the late singer’s too-brief life story is an exercise in ghost-clutching. A sense of absence is evident right from a childhood apparently built on neglect, deception, and some pretty traumatic abuse. Her father was a philandering, well-connected crook in Newark, New Jersey, and mother Cissy Houston was part of a musical family that also includes Dionne Warwick and her more troubled sister, Dee Dee.
Cissy had a significant career singing backup for Aretha Franklin and other top talents, was a lifelong church-choir director, and was never short of paying jobs. Real fame eluded her, however, and this drove relentless efforts to mould her only daughter into the perfect superstar. Whitney’s brothers and other relatives—all on the Houston payroll during its heyday—attest to the ruthlessness with which that shaping took place. Now 84, the elder Houston offers little here but tired platitudes, underlining the sense that she never really took interest in Whitney except as a vehicle for greatness.
This obsessive yet essentially disconnected relationship was repeated in Whitney’s relationship with her own child, Bobbi Kristina, who only survived her mom’s 2012 death by three years, and weirdly died in the same location: a bathtub. (The movie doesn’t mention that Whitney was due that night at a Grammys tribute to mentor Clive Davis.) Husband Bobby Brown is even more tight-lipped than Cissy, and comes across as a pathetic figure, even if it’s made clear that Whitney started snorting coke long before she met the New Edition singer, always destined to dwell in her shadow. Also notably silent is Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s lesbian best friend and sometime business manager and roommate, whom the homophobic brothers (who little resemble her) seem to blame for some of their problems.
The implication that Bobby was used as a beard for Whitney’s more fluid sexuality remains unexplored in the new film, written and directed by Scottish-born (but Vancouver-connected) Kevin Macdonald. Crawford likewise didn’t address the camera in Nick Broomfield’s earlier Whitney: Can I Be Me, but she was likely one of very few people who could honestly confront the singer when she was falling apart from drugs and alcohol.
In short, the new Whitney resembles other frustratingly compelling rise-and-fall sagas—especially the superior Amy—with added layers of race, class, and gender, most of which is only hinted at here. It still would have been helpful to include at least one complete song.