Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston documentary, Whitney, tells an all-too familiar tale of woe – for most of the running time. It’s only in its last 30 minutes that it becomes revelatory enough to justify its existence, but when it does it isn’t just a gripping and heart-wrenching film, but an important one.
Houston was one of the best-selling recording artists of the 20th Century, but her drug use turned her into a tabloid fixture and a chat show punchline for many years before she died in a hotel bathtub in 2012 at the age of 48. Macdonald, who flits between documentaries (Touching the Void, Bob Marley) and feature films (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), asks why she could never shake off her addictions, and how someone who seemed so radiantly happy and vivacious could actually be so tortured.
Interviewing most, if not all, of her closest associates, including her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, he suggests that she was cursed and blessed from the day she was born. Relatives couldn’t believe how beautiful a baby she was, apparently, and “Nippy” Houston’s vocal acrobatics were soon the talk of the church in Newark, New Jersey. But her love of gospel music was battered when her mother and disciplinarian singing coach, Cissy Houston, had an affair with the church minister, resulting in her parents’ divorce.
She tried cocaine on her 16th birthday, by which time she was already employed as a backing singer in her mother’s shows, just as Cissy herself had been a backing singer for the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. But when she became a superstar in her early twenties, it wasn’t just because of her prodigious trilling and her model looks. It was because she appeared to be a wholesome America’s Sweetheart from a good Christian family. Behind the scenes, though... in abundant home videos, we see how her sprightly jokes (and Paula Abdul disses) spiral downwards into narcotised babbling.
All of this is watchable, in its depressing way, but never very surprising. There has been a minor trend recently for posthumous documentaries about extraordinarily gifted yet tragic female vocalists – Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue, Asif Kapadia’s Amy, about Amy Winehouse – and there was one about Houston just last year, Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me. Searching for the causes of Houston’s misery, Macdonald lines up many of the same suspects that Broomfield did: the ‘double consciousness’ that came with being an African-American ghetto girl trying to win over white America; the bisexuality Houston denied in public. And some of those suspects are horribly similar to the ones in Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary: an ill-advised marriage to an enabling hellraiser (Brown, who became jealous when Houston’s career eclipsed his after The Bodyguard was released); a father who made too much of his management role (although, to be fair to Mitch Winehouse, he certainly never sued his own daughter for $100 million, as John Houston did).
Macdonald doesn’t improve his film, either, by making some pretentious editorial decisions. He likes to intercut television footage of Houston with news reports of world events in a way that suggests that they are somehow linked – that, for instance, the first Gulf War is connected to the singer’s personal conflicts. I’m sceptical, to put it mildly.
But just when Whitney seems to be no more than the latest entry in the ‘little girl blue’ genre, it reaches its ‘Rosebud’ moment. Macdonald finds one possible key to the mystery of Houston’s pain after 90 minutes, and his film is suddenly electrifying. He had already established that Houston and her brothers were often lodged with various relatives while her mother was away on tour. What he alleges later is that the young girl was molested by one of those relatives, Dee Dee Warwick, who was both her cousin and Dionne Warwick’s sister.
If that weren’t awful enough, the story then becomes one of a child abuse cycle. There is no suggestion that Houston and Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was molested, but when we hear about her being trapped in a secluded mansion while her strung-out parents scrawled pictures of devils all over the walls and floors, the term ‘child abuse’ seems appropriate. Bobbi died in 2015, just three years after her mother. But perhaps by shining some light into this intergenerational darkness, Macdonald’s film will help other suffering children, even in the homes of the rich and extremely famous.
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