There always was an interesting juxtaposition to Whitney Houston. The R&B icon had one of the most powerful voices in the history of the genre, able to captivate a stadium of people with the hold of a line or the reach her iconic, titanic high notes. She appeared to be the most delicate, pristine treasure gliding across stages and in front of cameras. In the excessive sheen of Ronald Reagan’s mid-80s America, Houston was a near-perfect encapsulation of the “American Dream”. She was simultaneously fierce and precious and it was apparently never meant to last forever.
The rise and fall of Houston, who was found dead in a bathtub on February 11, 2012, has been one of the most dissected of any celebrity. This makes Whitney, a new documentary on the singer, strange at first glance. For all of the highs and lows that Houston went through, most of them were very public. She was a great success and even greater tragedy, so what else is there left to say about her? The task of director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) is to zoom in on her life closer than any paparazzi or reality show camera ever did. Whitney is mostly a biography of Houston’s life, starting in the rough streets of Newark, New Jersey raised by singing women (her mother sang backup for Aretha Franklin and her cousin was Dionne Warwick) and faith-based men. She sang in New York clubs when she was a teen with a voice so big that the record labels came to her. And then she wore that grey hair tie in the “How Will I Know” video and the world was her oyster. Clive Davis talks about how powerful she was as a performer, Babyface praises how patriotic her performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl was and a plethora of fans tell her how great she is.
But her brothers are doing drugs around her backstage, and then Black America starts calling her “Whitey” Houston, and then she meets Bobby Brown, and then the family and friends being interviewed start choking up as they broach the later years.
For all the shining lights and everlasting glow the world put on Houston, Macdonald does a solid job of reminding the audience that she was a human being. A funny one at that, what with the behind-the-scenes footage of her trash-talking Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul while dancing and pulling funny faces backstage. As flawless as the world made her out to be and how troubled she would become, Houston is seen here as a bright, bubbling personality with poise and attitude to boot. Macdonald’s interviews with her family and friends also show how kind she was to nearly everyone around her and how she really did strive for the sacred tradition of a happy marriage and a picturesque family with noted bad boy Brown. Macdonald also makes some solid attempts at tying in whatever part of life of life Houston was in to the decade she was living in at the time. 80s Houston was as glowing and glamorous as a Coke commercial while 90s Houston had touches of drama and media hype like Bill Clinton’s presidency, but she always had some kind of battle going on akin to whatever international war is happening overseas. While this comparison does seem overdramatic and distracting at some points, the gravity of Houston’s death comes in and out of the movie in many of the interviews. The subjects either feel sorrow over the loss of such a well-meaning soul or hints of guilt over what could’ve been done to save her.
Whitney is more about Houston the person and not Houston the artist. Very little attention is given to her creative process as a singer and a performer, sans some concert footage thrown in here and there. There isn’t any discussion over how Houston felt when she hits the best notes in her songs at her peak or how she felt slowly losing her voice in her final years, disappointing considering how iconic her voice was. It would’ve been interesting to hear how she picked the songs that made her famous, especially in the case of anthems like “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” or “It’s Not Right But It’s Ok.” Macdonald loses focus of the time frame and story of Houston, jumping back and forth from her childhood to her becoming a mother back to childhood and then forward to her time living in Georgia with Brown deep in drug addiction. This might jerk the audience around too frequently and make the two-hour runtime feel much longer, with so many life events shuffled around in weird orders. It’s as if Macdonald was trying to chase down so many elements of her life that made her who she was and what led to her heartbreaking downfall.
Through all of its fault, Whitney is a clearer picture of who Houston was behind the scenes and how innocent she was through all of her struggle. Even if she never wrote a single lyric of her catalog, she sang and believed every word that came out of her lips into a microphone. And that’s what made her fall from grace all the more tragic: it wasn’t entirely her fault. She was an old soul simply grateful for doing what she loved with buried demons that bubbled up inside and eventually overtook her. Most of Whitney might seem like a pity party for the beloved icon, but it’s hard to ignore that she was also a victim of greed and celebrity. Houston said that every night she would dream that a demon was chasing her and she would wake up every morning exhausted from running in her sleep. From Whitney, it’s as if she was the one chasing something that caused her to burn bright into music history.