Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the latest documentary by Scottish director Kevin Macdonald about the life of Whitney Houston, and ‘why she ended the way she ended’
Whitney – ★★★★☆
Dir: Kevin Macdonald; Rating: 15; Runtime: 120 mins
Scottish director Kevin Macdonald wasn’t looking for Whitney Houston’s story when he was considering his next project. A noted documentarian for One Day in September, Touching the Void, and Marley, Macdonald just wasn’t that interested in making a film about Houston until asked to by Nicole David, her agent for most of her career. David never understood ‘why she ended the way she ended’ and wanted some sort of explanation.
Unlike Amy – the modern standard for this type of documentary – Whitney isn’t an angry film. Macdonald starts at the beginning and ends at the end, from a young Houston singing in church to her funeral. Family members, friends, co-workers, employees all recount their experiences with her each step of the way, some matter-of-factly, some with rose-tinted glasses. It is a broad overview of Houston’s life, not foregoing questions of her sexuality (upsetting some scripture-abiding relatives) and drug usage.
As someone who knows next to nothing about Whitney Houston, I found it to be an accessible watch. The key moments that made the world – and it really was the world – fall in love with her are all here. Fans will have seen her first TV show appearance and her Super Bowl performance, but for newcomers, they’re all the explanation needed as to why she meant so much to so many. I Will Always Love You will forever be part of the story of music, and The Bodyguard was significant to black America, for the first time seeing a black woman lead a film, get the guy, and have the Hollywood kiss usually reserved for white actors.
There’s a major chunk of the film that could more appropriately be titled Who Killed Whitney? If that’s its prevailing mood, then those euphoric moments of I Wanna Dance With Somebody only serve to remind us of a tragic figure, talented but troubled.
The importance of her blackness isn’t ignored, but it’s curious to consider Macdonald’s place in this. As a white man, a Scottish one at that, can he tell Houston’s story as ably as someone much more in tune with something she represented and stood for? Maybe he is the objective outsider, assembling footage and talking-head interviews as is appropriate to weave the story necessary for the film to make its point.
But when we hear how her Star-Spangled Banner managed to unite America for a moment, talking to black and white people like the anthem hadn’t before, there is something distant about its importance. It’s noted as an achievement, like it were underlined on a CV; oddly clinical for something so momentous. Through tears, people talk of their love for Houston after her performance of the national anthem, black people for the first time feeling included by a song that they’ve had a fraught relationship with.
It hints at a more empathetic film hidden underneath what Whitney actually is, which is a collection of highs and lows connecting some dots. Maybe it isn’t as angry as Amy because of Macdonald’s distance, more interested in answering Nicole David’s question than being about Whitney.
It’s the preamble to anger, the confusion over who to blame. Her father saw her less as a daughter and more as an opportunity. Her siblings were going through drugs on an industrial scale, a permanent fixture of her life on tour for a while. Her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown was a controlling one with much unhappiness, made worse by constant coverage in gossip mags. Then there’s the sexual abuse she and her brother Gary allegedly experienced from their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, revealed here for the first time.
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Here, Macdonald’s distance works. Why she ended the way she ended is probably explained in those destructive parts of her life, and they’re presented without emotional manipulation, allowing the audience to matter-of-factly sit with them. It’s in these moments the film feels more like investigative journalism, everything coming together in a chronological stream of conscious that might go some way to explaining what happened to Houston. We’ll never know but there’s enough here to hazard an informed guess.
In that sense it taps into the modern phenomenon of true crime podcasts. There’s a major chunk of the film that could more appropriately be titled Who Killed Whitney? If that’s its prevailing mood, then those euphoric moments of I Wanna Dance With Somebody only serve to remind us of a tragic figure, talented but troubled.
I think it is more than that, but its jumbled mood makes for something that’s half-biopic and half-something altogether more curious, trying to piece together a puzzle. Macdonald’s outsider status may have been necessary for some of the film’s revelations, and his experience with documentaries undoubtedly helped get Houston’s family’s blessing for the film.
Arriving just over a year after Whitney: Can I Be Me, directed by English documentarian Nick Broomfield, the world now has two documentaries about Houston’s life by white male outsiders. Macdonald’s Whitney is the best of its kind since Amy, but may only work in hindsight with a yet-to-be-made companion piece, by someone more empathetic and of her world. It absolutely works, but shares Amy’s voyeurism, uncomfortably implicating the audience when late-night entertainers made jokes at her expense. Macdonald is on to something from the outside looking in. What Houston deserves now is someone from where she was standing looking out.