“A warts-and-all telling of a seriously complicated story, with awe-inspiring moments to spare.”
A true pop culture behemoth deserves a proper beginning-to-end document of their journey. Academy Award-winning Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has attempted as much for megastar Whitney Houston with his new, sprawling, film Whitney, an uneven but deeply moving document of Houston’s life. The film he has made is a curious case; while it performs dutifully as a warts-and-all telling of a seriously complicated story, with awe-inspiring moments to spare, its treatment of its immensely talented subject is not that sympathetic.
The film ought to be commended for its deeply detailed depictions of Houston’s upbringing and rise to stardom. The access to such personal details is completely owed to the openness of the family, who began the process of getting the film made, not Macdonald. Thankfully, their hand in the process has not exempted them from any hard truths coming to light, and in fact some of the most devastating descriptions of mistreatment or disrespect surrounding Houston and her journey come directly from the family members who were responsible or complicit in the actions. The film almost feels like a scripted slow build; at times, as Macdonald admitted in a post-screening Q&A, even the documentarians are shocked by what their subjects reveal about Ms. Houston and her family. Like many rise-to-stardom stories, there are heartbreakingly tragic double-crosses, miscalculations, and traumas to be found just under the surface, and the film shies away from none of them.
It must be noted, artistically, there is little directorial signature or flair on the finished product — it mostly runs as a series of clips and related interviews, assembled in chronological order. The lion’s share of the memorable moments are down to Ms. Houston herself; clip after clip of archival footage proves again and again that she was truly one of the most talented pop singers of all time. By the time the film reaches the date of her death in 2012, the viewer will most likely empathize with the tragically doomed Houston more than ever. This is the true triumph of Whitney, for the film makes a compelling argument for her complete exoneration from the gruesome tabloid rumors that sank not only her career but her self-confidence. The film does well to simply play a performance of hers in full from time to time, just to recall what a breathtakingly beautiful voice she possessed. (You just try and maintain a dry eye when they revisit her performance of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the 1991 Super Bowl – you just try!)
That being said, Macdonald’s framing of the story does such a good job pointing out the mercilessness of tabloid interference in famous lives like Houston’s, that the nature of his own film gets consequently called into question. Horrid headlines concerning Houston’s dirty laundry and possible vices are sprawled across the screen as the film reaches the 2000s, Houston’s worst period of self-destruction; while this effect is well-measured, as the film itself began revealing similarly lurid details, I found myself beginning to question what the difference really is between the two outlets. Though Macdonald defended his film as ‘the truth,’ so therefore ‘better’ than tabloid journalism, the film does take a few steps too far into broadcasting the darkest sides of Houston’s past as if their tragic implications have entertainment value.
The film’s clinical approach to telling the story seems to treat its sensitive material at an arm’s length, which somewhat irresponsibly allows for sarcasm and humor where there really should be compassion and understanding. From the racial implications of its subjects’ statements, to certain allegations of terrible abuse, to the private inconsistencies of some contacts of hers, (her complicated ex-husband Bobby Brown asserting that Houston did not have a drug problem at all, for instance), the film simply has too many moments where the heartbreaking material seems meant to elicit a laugh, rather than a tear or a moment of reflection, and though there are more high points than low, Macdonald’s film never quite feels entirely respectful as a result.
Overall, however, Whitney is a fascinating two hours, and a must for any fans of The Prom Queen of Soul, or fans of the music biz in general.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 June)
Go to Whitney at the EIFF