“It’s about more than the music.” This is what one of the talking heads in Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney insists—that the story of legendary pop vocalist Whitney Houston is about more than her music. Houston’s grisly descent into drugs and addiction certainly has a steeper dramatic arc than the rise-rise, slow fade-and-fall trajectory of her celebrated voice, which was severely damaged by the time she was found face down in a hotel bathtub at the age of 48 in February of 2012.
Except, the music is a big part of Houston’s story. Daughter of soul singer Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, goddaughter to Darlene Love and unofficial niece to Aretha ‘Auntie Ree’ Franklin, she was born into family of singers. An instantly recognisable mezzo-soprano with a powerful, clean, goosebump-inducing belt, her emotional range could reach celestial highs, buoyed by her trademark melismas and stemming from her gospel training under Cissy’s tutelage. In one of Whitney’s talking head clips, founder of Arista Records Clive Davis says of her 1985 hit ‘The Greatest Love of All’ that she “found meaning in that song I’m sure not even the composers were aware of.” Her seventh and final record ‘I Look to You’ was released in 2009 to critical acclaim, earning Houston her first number one album since 1992’s soundtrack to The Bodyguard, but her comeback doesn’t fit the film’s classical narrative and so it is omitted.
In an interview with NME magazine Macdonald admits that he had no interest in Houston until her former film agent Nicole David and sister-in-law Pat Houston approached him to make a documentary about her life. He wanted to “redeem” Houston from the “bleak tabloid figure who became quite hard to sympathise with” that he felt she had become. The Houstons granted him extensive access to her estate. David coproduced the film.
Towards the end of Whitney, Macdonald isolates a TV interview from 1990 in which Houston says that the thing that makes her most angry is “child abuse.” If that clip is the smoke, interviews with Houston’s brother Gary and her assistant Mary Jones are presented as the gun. Both confirm that Houston was molested as a young girl, with the culprit revealed to be her cousin Dee Dee Warwick. It’s a bombshell whose insertion as a third act plot twist is a structural decision designed to make the viewer reframe their previous understanding of Houston, from her struggles with substance abuse, to her bisexuality and her intimate relationship with Robyn Crawford. Macdonald plants red herrings to throw the viewer off the scent, with family members and ex-boyfriends maintaining that she “didn’t have anything bad in her childhood” and that they “never saw a dark moment with her.”
Whitney has compassion for Houston, but it feels theoretical. The story is presented as sadder and more extraordinary than its subject. ‘Beloved Female Pop Star Struggles with Addiction Under Extreme Public Scrutiny’ is an assembly-line narrative, but Houston’s voice was one of a kind.
The film uses the new, tragic information of her abuse to produce empathy, as though that empathy needed to be earned. Both Macdonald and Nick Broomfield (whose unauthorized project Whitney: Can I Be Me was released in 2017) consolidate and crystallize the Houston-as-fallen-angel-narrative peddled by the mainstream media for decades. It’s curious that two middle-aged white men from the U.K.—Macdonald is Scottish, Broomfield English—are the designated authors of a story about a black American woman. Which is not to say that identity politics automatically beget authority, but rather that a stake in the material matters, especially given the emotional acrobatics of code-switching Houston was forced to perform throughout her career. Given that it has only been six short years since her death, some understanding of Houston’s impact and cultural lineage might have allowed for a more sceptical eye towards the tabloid missives that eventually swallowed her whole.
Houston was a gifted vocal arranger, even if she didn’t often write her own songs. Macdonald does well to dig into the story behind her celebrated rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ re-arranged with the help of John Clayton and Ricky Minor from its regular 3/4 waltz tempo into a 4/4 time signature that would allow her to flex her gospel-trained muscles. Yet the film dismisses her transcendent reworking of ‘I Will Always Love You’ as a Dolly Parton cover, reducing it to an omnipresent earworm whose legacy is that it was appropriated as campaign music by Saddam Hussein.
Even Whitney’s composer Adam Wiltzie (of ambient music duo Stars of the Lid) misunderstands her music. His droning, distorted score betrays a lack of context, emphasizing the morbidity of the proceedings. In an interview with Pitchfork, Wiltzie bragged that “composing themes to epic tragedies is something I feel I can do in my sleep.” Of Houston herself, the musician cheerfully acknowledges he has “zero memories” of her and that he “literally knew nothing about her other than her name.” When asked if he had familiarized himself with her back catalogue for the project, he replied: “No, not really.”
Macdonald goads the audience into laughing at Houston by cutting together footage of her at her drug-addicted low point, parodied in skits on Saturday Night Live and the cartoon television series Family Guy. He lingers on stills of her looking skinny, strung out and unkempt—photographs that undermine her diva image. A clip of music executive L.A. Reid, speaking direct to camera, follows: “If you’re laughing, fuck you,” as though this absolves Macdonald of any complicity.
Even the transportive, candy-bright “woo!” that opens Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ is diminished. The film sets its introductory sequence to the song, pinpointing the apex of Houston’s stardom as 1987. A grainy, glitching montage of Reagan’s America attempts to provide context, with clips of commercials for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, and Jane Fonda-style exercise videos cut with footage from the Persian Gulf War and race riots that broke out in Newark, New Jersey in 1967, twenty years prior. Later, a similar montage shows Princess Diana twinned with images of rockets launching into space, collaged with adverts for Apple and scenes of stocks booming on Wall Street. This clumsy device squashes the impact of the song; Macdonald deigns it the anthem of ascendant new money culture instead of marvelling at the fizzing chemical high produced by Houston’s vocal performance.
Whether intended as promotional tool or act of posthumous consecration, the best and most interesting music documentaries avoid hagiography while still looking at their subjects and their craft through the lens of love. In attempting to ‘redeem’ her, Whitney cements the tired tragic heroine trope assigned to gone-too-soon female popstars. It chooses to frame her as a woman who needed redeeming first, a musician worth remembering second.
Of the two documentaries, Macdonald at least has the advantage of access. Whitney lets Houston’s family members, former lovers, and colleagues speak about her with some degree of authority, while Broomfield’s film is more speculative, relying heavily on a testimonial from a bodyguard who was fired by the family in 1995. Still, both films operate from the perspective of investigative outsiders. But journalistic distance can be a block to intimate truths. If anything, this pantomime of objectivity makes it more difficult to survey the wreckage of a life derailed.
For those more familiar with the particularities of Houston’s life, the elephant in the room is surely her former husband Bobby Brown, whose street swagger was and still is contrasted with her church girl purity. Macdonald includes their troubled marriage as part of the story but positions it as something Houston felt she had to throw her weight behind in a bid for the stability her own family life lacked. The film focuses on Houston’s martyrdom in the face of Brown’s numerous infidelities, conveniently glossing over the fact that he was arrested for assaulting her. Harrowing footage of the two, coked up and spiralling during her ‘My Love Is Your Love’ tour circa 1999, hints at his bad influence—but Macdonald skips over the part of the story in which their joint behavior got even more out of hand (as documented in Being Bobby Brown, the Bravo reality TV show that aired in 2005). In a talking head interview, an uncooperative Brown says, firmly: “Whitney’s death had nothing to do with drugs.” It’s not a statement meant to be taken at face value, but it’s a weird moment. Macdonald chooses not to push; Brown is somehow excused.
Despite its omissions, the film does contain a few magic moments; the early live performances Macdonald selects capture the haunted quality those clips now hold, and it’s satisfying to see teenage Houston snuggled up with Cissy, wrinkling her nose and declaring, “Paula Abdul ain’t shit—that girl is singing off-key, on the record!” When Houston’s voiceover explains that she’s “always running from the devil,” and “When I wake up, I’m exhausted,” it’s genuinely spine-tingling acknowledgement of the demons that dogged her dreams.
Yet Macdonald is not terribly interested in close-reading Houston’s on-camera performances. Mick Jackson’s Houston-starring 1992 blockbuster smash The Bodyguard is deemed important because of its climactic interracial kiss, rather than for what it captured about Houston’s star persona at the time. In the film, Houston plays Rachel Marron, a lonely world-famous pop star and glossy fictionalization of herself. Her performance offers a glimpse of the cognitive dissonance created by the public adoration she received, coupled with the loneliness she experienced. It’s a time capsule of the pressure, the paranoia and the swarms of self-interested parties trying to control her—as well as the effervescent quality that made her so endearing.
Houston’s last film performance in a 2012 remake of Sam O’Steen’s Sparkle is given more airtime than The Bodyguard, with her colleagues insisting that it marked her later-life attempts to get clean and turn things around. It feels like a last-ditch effort to wrench back the version of Houston that existed before she was eclipsed by addiction. Indeed, when Houston’s brothers admit that they introduced her to recreational drugs when she was just a teenager, it’s an act of penitence that arguably reveals more about how the family have processed their grief than it does about her origin story.
As a portrait of Houston the woman, Whitney is a failure. As a corrective that re-establishes the Houston family as the engine of her achievements, it’s a success. From anecdotes about her father’s manipulation of her finances to the otherwise random inclusion of an A&R executive who accompanied Houston on a wayward and wildly expensive trip to Miami at the height of her drug problem, the film shows a range of people who tried to claim influence by virtue of sheer proximity. Macdonald’s gift to the Houston family is the opportunity for them to reassert their ownership over her legacy. Clive Davis didn’t make Whitney Houston a star, the film vows. Cissy did.