Rise and fall
The sad arc of Whitney Houston’s life could wring tears from a bronze statue, and director Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Whitney is sure to do the same. Macdonald mixes archival footage and talking-head interviews with Houston’s family and associates, and if his movie short-changes her music, it compensates with the revealing insights he offers into her life.
There are many musical moments in Whitney, but they’re only moments: a clip from the videos for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “How Will I Know,” her first TV appearance on The Mike Douglas Show singing “Home” from The Wiz, things like that. That last is especially electrifying; she seems to have sprung from nowhere at age 19, fully formed as the pop diva we know she’ll become. But the clip is also frustrating because Macdonald gives us so little of it. That appearance was a bit of musical history that we’d like to see more of; not all of Houston’s fans were around in 1983, and those who were probably didn’t watch Mike Douglas every day. Of all Houston’s musical legacy, only her iconic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl gets an in-depth treatment; Macdonald asks us to remember her performances from a few brief, even passing mentions.
Then again, Whitney is already two hours long, and on the whole Macdonald budgets his running time by exploring the forces that shaped Houston’s early development, honing her talent under the sometimes demanding tutelage of her mother Cissy, a backup singer for Aretha Franklin, who gave Houston tough-love training when she wasn’t on the road touring.
Those periods of touring left Houston and her brothers to be farmed out to various friends and relatives for long periods, and Macdonald implies that a feeling of abandonment and insecurity sowed the seeds of Houston’s downward spiral in the last years of her life. One eye-opening revelation comes from Houston’s assistant Mary Jones, who reveals that she was sexually abused between the ages of 6 and 9 by her cousin, singer Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne). Macdonald, without saying so directly, plants the suggestion that this experience led to confusion about her sexuality, as seen in her relationship with best friend and sometime lover Robyn Crawford and her futile efforts to make her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown work. (Dee Dee Warwick died in 2008; Dionne and Robyn Crawford, in Macdonald’s film, are conspicuous by their absence.)
Conspicuous by his presence is Brown, who initially gets credit for even speaking on the record, then squanders it by his gobsmacking assertion that “drugs had nothing to do with Whitney’s life,” and his refusal to discuss the subject. Those who regard Brown as a no-talent scumbag who sought to bathe himself in his wife’s reflected glory will find nothing in Whitney to change their opinion.
Houston’s brilliant peak made her drawn-out crash and burn all the more agonizing when it finally came, surprising almost no one. Macdonald traces her career with compassion and sensitivity.