Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston documentary is moving, but there's a feeling the film could’ve dug a little deeper
In the opening minutes of Kevin Macdonald’s heartbreaking documentary Whitney, the exuberant synths of I Wanna Dance With Somebody play over a montage of images representing the period. To Macdonald, Whitney Houston is as synonymous with the 1980s as aerobics and shoulder pads.
There’s an investigation within this broad documentary. Taking the traditional cradle-to-grave approach, the film examines everything from Houston’s childhood (which was “idyllic” according to her family, despite her parents’ divorce) to the toll fame took on her marriage to Bobby Brown. The apparent goal is to discover what instigated her spiralling descent into drug abuse. All the key events make an appearance to illustrate Houston’s meteoric rise and crushing fall: her record-breaking seven number one singles, her Star Spangled Banner rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl, her disastrous 2002 interview. The greatest hits are great for a reason – but the film could’ve dug a little deeper.
It’s hard not to compare Whitney to Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both women possessed generation-defining voices and shared a tragic path to self-destruction. While Amy distilled the singer’s talent and life into an empathetic feature with a clear narrative voice, Whitney feels somewhat disconnected from its subject, more interested in observing the people around her in an assembly line of talking head interviews. It’s like reading a more insightful Wikipedia page.
Undoubtedly the biggest bombshell the film drops is the sexual abuse Houston suffered as a child at the hands of cousin and singer Dee Dee Warwick. Curiously, Macdonald chooses to divulge this monumental piece of information just as the film winds to a close. It only comes across as an afterthought; an extra detail clumsily added in an otherwise competently-structured film. Juxtaposed with Houston’s untimely death, her life is conveyed as one that has always been suffused with tragedy – despite what outward appearances may suggest.
Whitney screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22 & 24 Jun – buy tickets here – and is released 6 jul by Altitude
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