The 2012 death of superstar singer Whitney Houston was felt around the world. Made famous by not just her beauty but a voice that comes along once in a generation, the singer could add soul and emotion to the most upbeat of songs. However, it was her ballads that immortalized her. Her early career seemed like a well-deserved fairy tale. Her later years descended into addiction and depression, that sadly led to her early death.
Yet in Whitney, the new documentary about the late singer, filmmaker Kevin MacDonald starts from the very beginning of Houston’s life. With a troubled family, identity issues, and revelations of early abuse, we see a different picture on the star that fell from grace.
Born Whitney Elizabeth Houston, the young singer was raised by her tough mother and philandering father. With her parents determined to make their young daughter a singer, her talent was quickly noticed by record companies that catapulted her into stardom. As her fame grew and generated an obscene amount of money, her family and friends started to reap the benefits of her success. But addiction, a volatile marriage, and depression quickly took hold of her, all under the watchful eyes of a constant media presence.
The film is the second major documentary about the singer’s life released since her death, follow Neil Broomfield’s Can I Be Me? last year and a lifetime movie. Director Kevin Macdonald has previously directed documentaries Touching the Void and Marley as well as drama The Last King of Scotland. For this film MacFonald gained unparalleled access to those closest to the singing, featuring constant talking heads from her brothers, step siblings, stylist, and personal assistants.
The first images used in the film show the sparky pop and soul princess Houston became in the 1980’s. Yet quickly the biopic takes us back to young Whitney’s childhood as she grows up with a soul singer mother, hustler father and two older brothers in Newark. The family aimed for a better life and moved to the middle-class suburb of East Orange. Here Houston was couched by her determined mother to be a great singer. Despite the family’s break up and personal issues, she was signed and became a sensation. But it is clear from those interviewed that the drugs and partying started long before the media exposed it.
You can feel where the access to those close to her ends. With no input from best friend and (according to this documentary) lover Robyn, moments feel flat. Without any conformation from Whitney or Robyn on just what their relationship was, it feels unexplored. Despite ex-husband, (and recovering alcoholic) Bobby Brown’s input, his refusal to speak about Whitney drug problems leaves a gap in this films narrative. Alongside this, the issues surrounding the pair’s daughter, Bobbi Christina and whether or not she was abandoned by her parents, feels under investigated.
Certain contextual references do not work in the film. There is no doubt that the success of a black, female, singer held its place in history for more than just music and yet the film does not explore enough this impact or influence Houston really had to her black audience.
In spite of these gaps in the narrative of the film, Whitney is a deep and powerful portrayal of the icon we thought we knew. It strips away the image we saw and rebuilds a very different person to the audience. The most striking thing about the film is how uncomfortable it is to watch. All accounts admit, (or demonstrate) that her family and friends lived off her success. From unofficial jobs to take large salaries and her own father suing her, those same people, (her brothers, ex-husband and friends) have taken part in a film to again gain something from her, long after her passing.
A truly uncomfortable account of a life torn apart but addiction. MacDonald’s documentary gives a very different perspective on the singer who fell into addiction. His film presents a troubled young woman who hid behind a contrived image all her life.
Whitney is out 9th July!