SHOULD I SEE IT?
One of 2018’s finest documentaries, Kevin Macdonald pulls no punches in telling the difficult story of Whitney Houston’s life.
The access Macdonald was given, the on-screen confessions and denials - it all creates a far more immersive experience than most celebrity documentaries. It is hard to imagine anything was left out.
Fans of the iconic superstar will see this as soon as possible. Just bring tissues and be ready, you’re not ready for everything you’re going to learn.
If you were not a fan of Whitney Houston, or have a bad taste ion your mouth over how her life ended, I guess you could care less about this.
This can be, at times, a very tough watch, covering many sensitive topics that might be triggers for some audience members.
Likely contending for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary later this year, I guess if you abstain from well-made movies about interesting topics, you can miss this one.
Questions swirled around what we would get with Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, a second documentary in just over a year (following Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me?) about the late pop and R&B icon, whose death was a devastating loss on such a widespread level.
The millions of fans Houston garnered over a tumultuous career, which spanned four decades, were obviously shocked and devastated. And as Macdonald shows us, those closest to her may not have been completely surprised at the tragedy they found themselves faced with on February 11, 2012. As it turns out, the Whitney Houston we thought we knew was not the Whitney Houston who existed in real life, with the cameras turned off.
Houston’s life is a bittersweet fable of hard work, perseverance, dedication, fame at a young age, massive global success, and a tragic descent into vices, poor decisions, and insecurities masked in being someone she was not. Her descent was public, fairly rapid, and brought her career to a halt in the mid-2000s.
Macdonald thankfully underscores her complicated life with a tremendous amount of detail from the family and friends who knew her the best. We see that Whitney’s talent was refined and shaped by her mother, Cissy Houston, a background singer for dozens of artists, who took a shot at a solo career, but never find top-tier status in the industry.
By 19, she had signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records label and stunned the live television audience, and those watching “The Merv Griffin Show” show at home, with her rendition of “Home” from the Broadway musical The Wiz. By 1985, she recorded a duet with soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, and released her debut, self-titled album, which launched her into the stratosphere.
By the end of 1980’s, Whitney became the first (and only) artist to have seven singles peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in a row, and quickly she was racking up awards and award nominations at every turn. Behind the scenes, Whitney brought her brothers into the fold, turning the Whitney Houston brand into a family affair.
And as occurs with so many young performers who break big, the influx of “Yes Men” began guiding Whitney’s career. With no one around to say “No,” with the world catering to your every whim, and money pouring in, fearlessness and carelessness, under the guise of just having fun, can take over.
Macdonald gains incredible access to personal stories, home videos, acknowledgment of heavy drug use, and eventually, painful, stunning disclosures of things Whitney experienced at a young age. Masterfully, Macdonald attempts to recreate the world around the singer that forced her into presenting herself as a radio ready pop/R&B singer, packaged as an All-American girl. Secretly, Whitney was teetering on the brink of exhaustion, self-destruction, and retreat from a lifetime of struggles only few ever knew about.
The entire experience in watching Whitney is breathtaking and equally as enlightening as it is undeniably sad. People will want to point to her relationship and subsequent marriage to R&B bad boy Bobby Brown as her downfall. The reality is that while Whitney and Bobby were increasingly unhinged, fighting drug addiction, jealousy, and depression, struggling to adequately parent their only child, Bobbi Kristina, he proved to be an escape from the one person Macdonald argues she loved more than any other: Robyn Crawford, her personal assistant and manager.
Described by former band leader Rickey Minor as “sexually fluid” or more accurately, bisexual, Houston and Crawford were together for many years, even as Houston dated men publicly. For reasons we will likely never know, the relationship was never acknowledged publicly (Crawford herself is the one glaring omission from the film), and the two become estranged during her marriage to Brown.
Through all of the home video and backstage footage, Macdonald spares nothing when showing us the life of a superstar, whose later years and tragic passing raised many more questions than answers. Similar to the Oscar-winning Amy, which gave us a deep dive into the short, tragic life of British singer Amy Winehouse, Whitney is another astonishing story of how fame and success can chew people up and spit them out, with no regard for how they come out on the other side.
This is a powerful film, Macdonald piecing together the details meticulously with editor Sam Rice-Edwards. Prepare yourself. He pulls no punches, including sharing what life was like for Bobbi Kristina, who died at the age of 22 in 2015.
Houston came to prominence in the 1980s - a decade which also gave us Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, U2, and the pop breakthrough of Bruce Springsteen, among others. Houston’s music has never been considered as the soundtrack to the history of those times, like some of her contemporaries. Macdonald argues maybe it needs to part of that conversation.
While easy to call Whitney just another cautionary tale, we are left to simply sit back and take in a moving and emotional story of success and personal tragedy, seeing for ourselves the maelstrom that engulfed Whitney Houston, and kept her from finding true peace and happiness in so many facets of her life.
At the end, one is left to simply hope she has finally found peace.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Cissy Houston, Gary Houston, Clive Davis, L.A. Reid, Alan Jacobs, Rickey Minor, Kevin Costner, Mary Jones.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Release Date: July 6, 2018