Director: Kevin MacDonald
15 | 2h | Documentary, Biography, Music | 5 July 2018 (UK)
Who was Whitney Houston? Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal tackled this question in last year’s Whitney: Can I Be Me?, now director Kevin MacDonald has the Houston family-sanctioned Whitney to have another go. In truth, both films have a lot to recommend about them, but having sampled each, I still find Whitney Houston an enigmatic and essentially unknowable figure. Of course, you could argue everyone is unknowable, but for various reasons, in large part due to Houston’s reticence to open up in the interview footage both documentaries chose to draw on, and due to certain key figures still holding back their co-operation, Whitney still feels out of reach for me.
That is not to say MacDonald’s film doesn’t manage to command the attention, as well as emphasise different aspects of what is still essentially the same ‘arc’ as Broomfield’s film: that arc being Houston’s youthful success from poor-to-middle class roots in New Jersey, the rise of the young church choir singer to global fame following signing a deal with the Arista label, with it all sinking into a drug-addled decline and tragic death years later at age 48. In terms of style and structure, it has a few pleasingly different flourishes: such as chapter break-like sequences where we are bombarded with jarringly intercut news footage and deconstructed images (visual and aural) of Houston’s poptastic life, showing how crazy fast the 80s and 90s must have passed at that level of fame. Comprehensive and sensitively presented, and with a year since Broomfield’s film was released to find different footage to showcase Houston’s huge talent (highlights include Houston’s Star-Spangled Banner Super Bowl performance -which she astonishingly improvised in a few minutes- and her concert as the first major artist to appear in post-apartheid South Africa), MacDonald has another trump card to play; the co-operation, for the first time in a doc, of the Houston family. This includes her mother, brother and half brothers and step sisters, and their presence does not seem to have produced the sanitised product I feared. And audience members are, of course, always free to read between the lines regardless of what the Houston inner circle say on screen.
For one thing, her brothers frankly speak of their role in introducing Houston to drugs at an early age (helping correct the impression it was her later husband, the rapper Bobby Brown, who was solely responsible) whilst other family members express some shocking homophobia towards Houston’s long term friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, about whom it has been long alleged was Houston’s lover. The absence of Crawford, who Houston essentially fired after she had achieved global fame and after what was framed as a long Robyn vs Bobby feud for attention following Houston’s marriage to Brown, leaves MacDonald’s film with the same gaping hole as Broomfield’s. I don’t consider this the final word on Houston as a result, though seeing this severing of ties in MacDonald’s film re-emphasised for me the sadness at the thought of a woman possibly blocked by social and commercial pressure and the conventions of heteronormative marriage to avoid embracing her sexuality openly. Houston’s mother Cissy has some thought-provoking and poignant remarks about how she taught her child to not only sing, but think about singing from first principles: use the heart, soul, and the guts. Whitney certainly had all three, but other family members and friends warn about the dark side of Whitney’s parental experience; about how her mother’s singing career and long periods away, her affair with their local minister, and then her father’s own infidelities, left Houston deeply scarred emotionally and damagingly dependent on an image of marriage and happiness that hurt all the more when it kept evading her.
MacDonald’s film certainly feels thorough in terms of what it is trying to do, and wisely only nods to areas the Broomfield doc already covered in more detail (such as the painful racial politics Houston had to negotiate by being a singer that some in the black community thought was ‘too white in her singing’). Though I can’t imagine I will want to see another Houston doc that simply goes over the triumph to tragedy arc all over again (let’s maybe next time see a detailed exploration of Houston’s singing and writing talents, the ‘method’) MacDonald does have one singularly important contribution to add to the story, and one which justifies using his official status to gain access to friends and family: the revelation from Houston’s inner circle that she and other family members privately stated that they were sexually abused at a young age by a relative entrusted with their care during a prolonged period of being shuffled around by absent parents. The alleged abuser is named (they are dead), and audiences members are thus left to wonder how this could have impacted Houston’s many decisions about expressing her sexuality, her choice in relationships, and ultimately, the way she treated herself.
This is not the final word on Whitney, not by a long shot, but it doesn’t feel like a disservice to one of the greatest voices of all.