Watching this electrifying and empathetic look at the life of Whitney Houston, you keep wanting to reach into the screen and nudge Whitney toward a different path – one that ends a lot differently. That’s wishful thinking, of course, not to mention hopelessly naïve. You can’t trace the downward trajectory of Whitney’s later years – she died at 48 in 2012 of an accidental drowning in a Beverly Hill hotel bathroom (with traces of cocaine and marijuana found in her system) – and still underestimate the strength of the demons that chased this massively talented African-American singer for most of her existence.
Following on the heels of Nick Broomfield’s 2017 Showtime doc, Whitney: Can I Be Me, this portrait from Kevin Macdonald (Marley, One Day in September) cuts deeper into its subject’s tortured psyche while perhaps shortchanging the inexhaustible range of her talent. There are clips capturing some of her best performances, from her debut TV appearance at 19 singing “Home” from The Wiz to the 1980’s power dynamics of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and her arguable career peak belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. She made history in The Bodyguard (1992), not just for its chart-topping songs, but for singing “I Will Always Love You” to Kevin Costner – and persuading multiracial audiences to embrace it. Still, what Whitney offers as a film is not a career retrospective, but a portrait of a life out of balance, the thing that happens when talent sparks an overweening fame that makes a normal day-to-day existence virtually impossible.
It’s late in the film when Houston’s longtime assistant Mary Jones reveals that Whitney was molested as a child by her cousin, singer Dee Dee Warwick, who died in 2008. A few critics have argued that this revelation, especially in the final third of the film, is exploitation – a cheap trick to turn the film into a mystery solved. Instead, the disclosure works as a defining moment that informs everything we learned previously about Houston: her need to keep things secret, to hide her pain, to internalize rather than let it bleed. Most importantly, it underlines her desire to play-act the so-called “normal” life befitting a megastar, one who also happens to be a troubled wife (to R&B singer Bobby Brown) and mother to their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who died in 2015 after a bathtub incident similar to her mother’s.
And so the film piles up evidence that refutes the Hollywood-friendly notion that she was always a carefree, joyous girl who sang in the choir the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. The film exposes this version as a myth. What Macdonald shows is a child of divorce whose mother, gospel-singer Cissy Houston, and manager-father John Houston both had affairs. The former had a dalliance with the minister of their church; the latter skimmed funds from his daughter’s business. The scars never healed.
So Whitney took refuge with her school friend, right-hand and reported lover Robyn Crawford, who does not appear in the film. It’s through the testimony of others that Crawford emerges as the unshakable support system that Houston lost when she married Brown. It wasn’t just his jealous hold on his wife, but her need for the “My Prerogative” singer to give her street cred as a straight icon, not to mention a bad-boy curative for those who thought Whitney had sold out to white commercialism.
Substance abuse remains a constant in her life as her brothers, Michael and Gary, reveal that their early experimentation included her. As was her custom, Whitney kept it hid. In the most stonewalling interview in the film, Brown refuses to acknowledge that his wife’s lifetime dependence on weed and cocaine had an effect on her life and art. So Macdonald shows us Whitney in late-career concerts – her voice in shocking disrepair – as her once loving fans unleash a chorus of boos. There’s rehab, then relapses, scary weight loss and an interview with Diane Sawyer in which Houston futilely tries to put a hopeful face on her own disintegration (“Crack is whack”). Record execs from Clive Davis to L.A. Reid claim to have had no knowledge of the state of her inability to hold it together. And so a pattern emerges of friends and even family on the payroll propping up a fallen idol so as not to kill the goose that laid the gold records.
Though Macdonald offers the sight and sound of Whitney in interviews and home movies, she is never heard grappling with the grave issues the film raises. The movie is unflinching is letting us see the zombified copy of herself that Whitney became. But that’s the power of the best documentaries, the ones that tell it like it is without denigrating the glory that was. Whitney belongs in that treasured company.