Tragic deaths are hardly rare in the music business, but Whitney Houston’s fall from pop superstardom to a sad end in a hotel bathtub in 2012 is one of the most notorious, and most poignant. Her passing is naturally the culminating event in Kevin Macdonald’s excellent documentary, but while not ignoring the circumstances leading to her death—and offering some startling observations about her emotional and physical health—it provides an insightful view of her entire life and career, as well as the social context surrounding and affecting them.
In many respects Macdonald’s film is ordinary, in terms of its formal conventionality. It assembles excerpts from interviews and mingles them with archival footage and stills to provide an outline and analysis of Houston’s life. What’s extraordinary is the range of those interviewed—from her mother, brothers and other relatives, as well as her husband Bobby Brown, through business colleagues (even Kevin Costner, who remarks on co-starring with her in “The Bodyguard”). But the result is no watered-down authorized biography. The interviews elicit revealing observations and admissions, and even those occasions when someone says something incredible—as when Brown simply denies that drug use had anything to do with her death—the comment is telling.
And Macdonald is uncompromising in depicting the difficult familial circumstances that had such a great impact on Houston. Hers was a broken family not only because her parents divorced but in other ways. Her mother Cissy, a successful singer herself, recognized her daughter’s talent early on and taught her well, but was also absent so much that she left much of the work of raising her to others, and then sent her to a demanding Catholic school. Her father John, a powerful New Jersey state official, was a notorious womanizer, but was infuriated when Cissy had an affair with the minister her daughter revered. Whitney placed her brothers in jobs with her retinue after her pop success, but they were hardly good influences, among other things encouraging her increasingly harmful drug habit.
Her family, moreover, was hardly supportive of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, a high school friend who became her roommate when she left her family at 18. Crawford not only served as her aide and confidant but—much to the family’s displeasure—was also her lover, something that would lead to some very nasty press coverage (and, ultimately, Crawford’s departure). Equally unpleasant was the allegation from some African-American leaders—including Al Sharpton—that she wasn’t “black” enough. Under such circumstances it was perhaps psychologically understandable that she should have married Brown as a means of dealing with both issues—a marriage that ultimately proved disastrous to her wellbeing, particularly since his star fell as hers ascended.
“Whitney” doesn’t ignore the artistic side. It shows her amazing early talent and her astronomical success with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. It gives one a taste of her live performances and the overwhelming popularity of “I Will Always Love You,” not only in America but throughout the world, and admiringly recalls her rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, which had a unifying patriotic effect at an important moment in U.S. history, during the first Gulf War.
But the emphasis is on Houston’s personal life, and the decline that was epitomized by a catastrophic “comeback” tour, which some of the people involved describe in truly horrific terms. The situation was exacerbated once more by family problems: she had appointed her father as her manager, but fired him after he was accused of skimming funds, and he responded by filing suit against her for $100,000,000. They never reconciled. And the scorn with which she was treated by the media—a few examples are included, like a clip from “American Dad”—was only amplified by a misguided interview Houston herself gave to Diane Sawyer.
There are obviously many villains in the Houston story, but the film withholds one until a late-minute revelation. Ultimately, Macdonald argues, the real crux of the tragedy lay in Houston’s inability to come to terms with the person she really was, and he traces that to childhood molestation by a person whom her assistant Mary Jones explicitly names, citing Whitney herself as the source. To find out that person’s identity, see the film.
That’s hardly the only reason to watch “Whitney,” however. Macdonald recognizes the complexity that marked both her rise and her fall, and, aided by editor Sam Rice-Edwards, who has blended the archival material and Nelson Hume’s newly-shot footage with a supple touch, conveys the tragedy of her life with intelligence and skill.