Sunday, 5 August 2018


A look at the life of superstar singer-actress Whitney Houston (1963-2012), Whitney is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kevin MacDonald.

The official counterpoint to last year's Can I Be Me, this documentary adds more voices and context, but still leaves its subject in shadow.

Once again, the big omission is Houston's best friend/offsider/potential lover(?) Robyn Crawford looms over the story but is not present to offer her story. Like Whitney, she is compiled from the recollections of other people. Considering the place she had in the first half of Houston's life and career, her non-appearance here immediately hobbles the claim in the film's tagline that this story is 'untold'.

The one big reveal is the alleged child abuse that the movie points to as the catalyst that defined Houston's behaviour for the rest of her life. It is the movie's trump card, and it adds a layer of shading to the speculations of the other documentary - whether that adds to our understanding Houston the woman, is another story.

While it is interesting, and MacDonald avoids making Houston (and the supporting players in her life) look squeaky clean, there is something light and superficial about it.

While it is rougher, Nick Broomfield's documentary was built on the bones of an unfinished concert documentary. That limitation ended up being a benefit, as it forced Broomfield into focusing on a specific point in Houston's life, which - whatever its fidelity to the subject - made it feel like a stronger portrait of the singer at a point in time.

MacDonald goes the full biographical route, which results in a vague lack of focus.

Bracketed by montages of pivotal world events during Houston's life, there are great sequences scattered throughout the movie - the breakdown of her Star Spangled Banner performance is a standout - but cumulatively, there is a sense of over-simplification. Maybe this is an effect of comparing Whitney to its unofficial predecessor, but the abundance of content seems to work against creating a coherent, focused portrait of its subject.

When the Broomfield documentary ended, the question marks surrounding Houston felt like parts of the text. Here the sense of incompleteness feels like a flaw.

Every now and then the film hits a critical point - like the Dee Dee Warwick revelations - that feels like the filmmakers hitting a dramatic turn that solidifies their portrait of Houston, and her motivations. But these moments do not stick because - once again - the filmmakers lack the input of its subject.

Like Can I Be Me, there are aspects of Houston's emotional life that are compiled from the assumptions of other people. And while that is not in itself bad (it's hard to avoid here), the way the filmmakers present it gives it a weight that these testimonies should not have to take. For the filmmakers to be so definitive when the key players - Houston, Warwick or Robyn Crawford - are absent (either in-person or on the record), feels sloppy and works against the film's presentation as the 'true story.' It feels like a sliver of truth built on assumption and conjecture.

After watching the two documentaries, I am still left wondering about who she was. To compress anyone's whole life into a movie's runtime feels simplistic and reductive.

Is Whitney worth watching?

For a relative neophyte like me, it is interesting, and MacDonald does provide some emotional punches - the tours of Houston's homes, intercut with home views of Houston in the same spaces - is powerful. However, overall it feels scattershot in focus, and fails to craft a portrait of its subject that feels true to the person, or her talent as a musician.


Whitney: Can I Be Me

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