- Review by Alison Traynor
Entering this screening as somebody who has never been a fan of Whitney Houston’s music and who has managed to avoid much of the media frenzy around this world renowned singer, mainly due to a lack of interest, I was anticipating a mundane two hours in the cinema. However, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney completely surpassed my admittedly low expectations. It is an interesting and engrossing watch, complimented by a substantial collection of interviews, images and footage of Houston, both personal and performative.
Everybody knows at least some aspects of Houston’s time-worn story. The tale of a promising young woman who took the world by storm with her extraordinary voice but unfortunately descended into a cycle of drug-addiction and personal problems which resulted in her premature death. It is commendable that Macdonald opts to examine this story from a slightly different angle than the media usually does. Generally, her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, is blamed for Houston’s issues, and while the documentary mentions him, it shifts more focus and arguably more blame onto her blood relatives. Throughout their interviews, her family attempts to portray her home life with them as idyllic, but this rings entirely untrue and is contradicted by various other revelations throughout the documentary. Her mother, Cissy, appears to have put an immense amount of pressure on her in classic ‘stage mother’ style, but this foible pales in comparison to the callousness of her father, John. Other interviewees demonstrate the ways in which he controlled her life, manipulated her for his own gain, stole money from her, and eventually even sued her for $100 million. Her brothers were habitual drug-users and it was with them that she discovered the drugs that would later result in her downfall. While Houston was certainly not perfect, her family life undoubtedly exacerbated her troubles and it was difficult not to empathise, at least to some extent, with her while watching this documentary.
It is praiseworthy that Whitney sensitively creates a portrait of Houston as a person rather than a star, and also that this sensitivity never descends into sycophancy. The discussion of her various flaws is frequent, yet not in a way that feels like a personal attack on her or her legacy. All of her contradictions are laid bare, outlining her different identities. The audience learns about Whitney the devout Christian, Whitney the drug addict, Whitney the devoted wife, and Whitney the neglectful mother simultaneously. After her demise, her devotees were left wondering what could have caused her to end up in such a terrible state. Whitney constantly strives to answer this question, and while we will never have a definite answer, the documentary explores this question adeptly through the examination of Whitney the human being, and the events that shaped her identity.
In keeping with her life, the mood of the documentary is consistently downbeat, removing every last illusion of glamour from her persona, leaving only the image of a profoundly damaged woman. Some of the anecdotes provided by interviewees are nothing short of appalling, both relating to Whitney Houston herself and Houston’s treatment of others. Something that makes this documentary particularly notable is an allegation that she was sexually abused as a child by her cousin, the singer Dee Dee Warwick. Another particularly distressing topic that is dealt with is the suffering of Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who was the true victim of her parent’s lifestyles. While this is an excellent documentary, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted.