You wait for one Whitney Houston film and then, in the space of 12 months, two follow hot on the heels of one another. Having been pipped to the post by Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Why Can’t I Be Me, prolific Scot Kevin MacDonald now weighs in with Whitney.
Leading off with the positive notes of her apotheosis rather the ignominy of her end, his work is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. Intentions persist to tell the story as the main players saw it. And what main players are procured. Unlike Broomfield’s doc, which might just shade Whitney in terms of overall execution, a real coup is secured in the form of testimonials from Bobby Brown (ex-husband), as well as other members of her family aside from her mother, Cissy, and one of her brothers, Gary.
What arises is something of a contradictory account of the wiles and whims of the star. It makes total sense. Different people will have seen different sides of her personality, leaving us with exactly what we should have: the sort of kaleidoscope that would emanate from any multifaceted three-dimensional human being.
Stylistically speaking, taking heads in the style of Macdonald’s own Touching the Void are interspersed with archive footage. The encapsulation of that once-in-a-generation talent is presented impeccably, with extended footage of Whitney’s first ever TV performance and her Super Bowl performance of the Star Spangled Banner – performances that still stun today. There is even space for the bizarre footage of an Arab version of ‘I Will Always Love You’, which soundtracked an election campaign for Saddam Hussein. Very surreal. Kevin Costner talks of tectonic plate shifting impact of the Bodyguard (a triumph for racial politics in conservative 90s Hollywood).
Once again, like the aforementioned Why Can’t I Be Me, the notable absentee is Whitney’s long-time confidant, Robyn. While her silence looms over this film ominously, her brothers speak candidly and frankly, providing valuable insight. Without the right of reply (due to his passing), her father is painted as a villain in the mould of Colonel Tom Parker. John Houston eventually sued his daddy’s girl daughter in an act of rapacious betrayal. Whitney never really recovered from the soul sapping and pocket draining opportunists that enveloped her and her toxic union with Brown paved the way for drugs to become an illusory crutch.
Notwithstanding her tragic decline, Macdonald’s portrait of Whitney Houston makes sweet music. Frank and insightful; his work is a reminder of this plucky New Jerseyite’s axis-altering, irrepressible, unstoppable gift. A celebration of her successes that isn’t shy of having an unflinching look upon her failings too. A riveting study on one of the grandest superstars of the modern era.