For as long as I can remember loving music, I have loved Whitney Houston. Growing up in the aftermath of The Bodyguard meant that Houston’s legend loomed large over pop culture, but much like Michael Jackson, another childhood hero of mine, the life portrayed in her film performances and music videos was entirely separate from the one occurring in reality. Now six years since her death, Whitney looks to tell the other side of the story, the less glamorous but unfortunately more real side.
With the help of contributions from the likes of her mother Cissy Houston, brothers, aunts, friends, staff and ex-husband Bobby Brown, the documentary gives a fairly linear account of Whitney Houston’s life, from humble beginnings singing in church in Newark, New Jersey to total music superstardom to the eventual descent in to drink and drug addiction that would prove to be her downfall.
Whitney suffers the misfortune of being released a very short time after Nick Bloomfield’s own documentary on the singer’s life, Whitney: Can I Be Me, a project that I think, for the most part is the better of the two. There is absolutely no doubting that this version of the story makes better use of Houston’s incredible music with some really powerful and poignant montage sequences, but it almost feels as is the film is too beholden to the opinions and perceptions of its talking heads, some of whom very clearly are choosing to relay their own version of events rather than the truth. Whitney’s brother Gary Garland, for example, paints a very different, borderline homophobic picture of the relationship that his sister had with close friend Robyn Crawford, expressing his view that Crawford was an opportunistic hanger on rather than the secret lover and underground support system that most other versions of the tale show her to be.
Similarly, the co-operation of Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother in the documentary feels almost like an obstacle, paying reverence to her rather than exposing the many bad decisions and troubled confrontations that she had with her daughter through the years. Add to the mix Bobby Brown, her controversial ex-husband, whose contribution to the film is sitting in a room and refusing to talk about the couple’s problem with substance abuse, and you aren’t left with much insightful commentary to go with.
In fact, the one or two genuinely shocking and expository revelations that are unearthed in Whitney, rather than being given room to breathe and expand, are moved on from extremely quickly, almost as if the filmmakers are scared of the partially unsubstantiated truths that they have uncovered. To circle it back to Nick Bloomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, that documentary, in my opinion, does a much better and more effective job of exploring Houston’s early family life, sexuality, career struggles, career highs and almost life-long problem with substance abuse. In comparison, Whitney covers pretty much all of the same ground, but does in such a way that the story being told always feels somewhat tailored by the voices that are contributing, voices that perhaps have their own agenda to push. Don’t get me wrong, I welled up as poignant clips of her singing I Will Always Love You and I Have Nothing are played at just the right time, and I gasped when certain facts came to light, but I can’t help feeling that compared to Bloomfield’s freer, less burdened and beholden take on the story, Whitney is a documentary that spends too much time on the things we already know and not nearly enough time on the things that we don’t.
It is tough seeing someone you have admired since you were a child descend from a fresh faced prodigal ingenue to severely underweight, drug addled former shadow of themselves in the space of two hours, but that is that kind of experience that Whitney provides. What is most remarkable is that from beginning to end, beneath the desperation and addiction, Whitney herself remains an enigmatic and compelling presence on screen. Even high as a kite, the woman was a superstar, and I’m not sure whether that is mightily impressive or mightily distressing. Probably both.
The cast of contributors throughout the documentary range from likeable but helpless friends and staffers to close family members that clearly knew than they said and clearly could have done more to help Houston in her times of need. Bobby Brown in particular does nothing to redeem his already assassinated character. We might learn that, contrary to popular opinion, Whitney’s problem with drugs started before her fateful union with Brown, but what is clear to see is that his presence in the singer’s life, along with his insistence that the aforementioned Robyn Crawford be removed from it, were two of the biggest factors in Whitney reaching the point of no return.
The film ends with a brief postscript detailing the subsequent death, in an eerily similar fashion, of Whitney’s daughter Bobby Kristina Brown just three years after her own, followed by a mesmerising clip of Houston singing arguably her greatest song, I Have Nothing. In these two moments, the film poignantly sums up the two extremes of Whitney Houston’s existence. An other worldly, earth shatteringly, God given (if you believe in that sort of thing) talent, living alongside a life so plagued with tragedy, abuse and addiction that it’s a wonder those angelic sounds were ever able to pass through her lips. It is a talent and a stardom the likes of which I’m not sure we will ever see again. Whitney is not a perfect documentary, in my opinion it isn’t even the best documentary on this very subject, but it’s certainly worth a watch. Just be mindful of what you are being told and specifically who is telling it to you.