Flip through any book about popular music and you’ll find dozens of musicians’ stories with tragic heartbreaking ends. Tales of intimate beginnings, soaring highs and ignoble lows, inter-meshed with drugs, sex and damn fine music. No wonder so many documentarians seek out these figures as centrepieces for their works. In the last few years alone we’ve had Amy, Cobain: Montage of Heck and Whitney: Can I Be Me. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the Michael Jackson story becomes a warts and all documentary. Despite that last one, here comes another version of possibly the most soul-crushing lost musician of the lot Whitney Houston. However unlike the Nick Broomfield shot Can I Be Me, Whitney has the blessing of her estate, meaning almost every player in her life gets a chance to share their voice. It is both soaringly uplifting and deeply deeply tragic.
Kevin MacDonald is no stranger to documentaries, especially ones that have an undercurrent of tragedy. In 2003 he recounted the tale of a nightmarish trip into the Andes in Touching the Void, using recreations to adequately grasp the emotional horrors the people involved went through. A brief stint into theatrical storytelling (State of Play and The Last King of Scotland) gave him the dramatic nous of fictional story structure which he has laced into Whitney. Eschewing the need for recreations or thrilling mystery building (after all we know the terrible finale of Whitney all along unlike Touching the Void) he uses a mixture of intimate home video footage, musical performances and talking heads to build a picture of her life. Documentary is all about the editing and MacDonald is second to none here, especially in a number of montages he uses throughout that wind in footage of Houston alongside news footage, cultural milestones and even adverts to frame her within the political and social context. It only adds to making her importance feel ever more pertinent.
Narrative speaking Whitney doesn’t break the mould established by these documentaries, sketching out her early church going childhood, stressing the importance faith and her mother were in her life. Before following a traditional path through her breakout success, her movie career, her ill-fated relationship with Bobby Brown (more on him later) and of course her decline personally and creatively. MacDonald does hint at future aspects in the early portions, building in a feeling of inevitability. Such as her brothers mentioning, with remarkable frankness, their early introduction of drugs to Whitney. There is always a risk too with these intimate personal documentaries that the director can have too much power, steering the audience to think of his subject the way he/she wants them to, either by withholding footage that’d cast them in a different light or interviewing only one side of the story. Although there are elements of deifying her, usually via the people who speak about her rather than anything MacDonald in particular does, he is not afraid to show the dark side of her or those around her.
Struggles with addiction, fraught relationships with her father, her badly rated comeback in the Noughties, all are touched upon giving you the sense that nothing has been left off the table. The fact her family and friends were willing to go on camera and speak about Whitney and themselves with such honesty is a testament to the techniques MacDonald must’ve employed to trust in him. In a move I usually dislike you can hear him at times ask the interviewees questions. albeit he is never on camera, but it is used sparingly gracing the times he does with an added probing power. No more so than when Bobby Brown shows up. Much maligned in the press over the years for his part in her self-destruction, and with good reason, Whitney making it all too clear that he was nothing but bad news. In being part of this you would hope he may use it as a chance to redeem himself or at least tell his version of things, the fact he doesn’t and says so little tells you all you need to know, with MacDonald lingering just enough on him to accentuate that fact.
The director has made it clear that he wasn’t the biggest fan of Houston’s music and in some respects that shows, albeit for the better. Her songs and performances of course play a big role, but unlike Amy which utilised countless footage of her performing, MacDonald is more choosy with his spotlight. Saving his focus for moments around the performances, like a candid video of her getting prepared for a concert. The music was important yes, MacDonald taking the time to show how in Black America she was both legend and unpopular for ‘whitening up’ gospel music, but more importantly is who she was as an individual. Loving, graceful and gentle, but also pained, shy and burdened with hard to speak of truths. A late film revelation about a traumatic incident in her past is devastating but never sensationalist. It is all another facet to exploring her troubled mind.
Her death, as you can imagine, takes up a fair bit of time in the latter parts, but MacDonald never lingers on the graphic nature of her passing, and whilst her troubles do sometimes threaten to overtake the film he never forgets to celebrate who she was and the impact she wrought on culture. Occasionally you do wonder at some of the choices made, such as the surprising lack of Winnie (Houston’s mother) amongst the interviews despite her early presence, but the power of this documentary is undeniable. The pain etched on some of her friends as they recount their tales is nothing short of heart-wrenching. It would take a strong person not to shed a few tears throughout. Most importantly though Whitney succeeds because it removes her from the tabloid anecdotes and fateful decline, and leaves us with how we should remember her, a flawed delicately beautiful soul with a voice from heaven.
Verdict: An emotive, beautifully woven showcase of a tragically short lived supremely talented woman, told with honesty and care.