From its opening scenes, it’s clear that documentary Whitney, from director Kevin Macdonald, is setting out to not only tell the story of pop star Whitney Houston’s life, but to ground that story in context. Splashy clips from the video for Houston’s 1987 hit single ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ are intercut with heart-wrenching footage from the 1967 Newark riots, a jarring juxtaposition that sets the stage for an exploration of Houston’s inner tragedy and the impact of her success on her family.
Unlike the other Whitney Houston documentary released last year (Whitney: Can I Be Me from director Nick Broomfield), Macdonald’s Whitney is the authorised version. Interviews with family members, close friends and employees form the backbone of the film, and with not much actual footage of Houston herself available, the end result is a film haunted by its subject. We hear her voice, watch clips from music videos and talk shows, catch snippets of performances and zoom in on photos, but there is remarkably little of Houston left to tell her own story. Instead, Macdonald conducted more than 70 interviews, piecing them together to form the story of Houston’s life.
It’s clear from the start that Houston was set to go on to greatness: she comes from the same musical family as Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick (her cousins) and Cissy Houston (her mother), all singers. She was a born performer, with a unique talent that was nurtured by years of singing in the church choir and honed by her mother’s tutelage. When she finally signed with a record label, fame was quick to follow and soon she was everywhere.
The story from there is more or less well known, and Macdonald returns to the use of montages to summarise such sections of Houston’s life; first her rise to fame and then her downfall into addiction after her marriage to Bobby Brown. As a narrative device, these montages are sometimes dissonant, sometimes a red-white-and-blue-coloured amalgam of historical and cultural referents: Michael Jackson, Coca Cola ads, Tiananmen Square. Although jarring at times, they do a great deal to provide context for Houston’s story and help the film convey a remarkable amount of empathy for its subject.
The most compelling part of the film comes three quarters of the way through, with the big revelation of what may be the root cause of Houston’s addiction, and if you haven’t seen the film or heard much about it, you may want to stop reading here (spoiler alert!).
What comes out in Macdonald’s interviews, and what has never been publicly revealed before, is that both Whitney and her brother Gary were sexually abused as children by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick. Macdonald saves this revelation for the last quarter of the film for the simple reason that the information didn’t come out until the last round of interviews, and in fact the interview with Mary Jones (Houston’s personal assistant), in which she recounts a conversation with Houston about the abuse, was the last interview done for the film. The revelation, which I should point out remains unconfirmed, casts a shadow over everything the film has shown so far, and provides a satisfying (if heartbreaking) answer to the question the film has seemed to be asking all along: why?
Whitney is a compelling investigation of Houston’s life, from her childhood through her rise to fame and stardom as she came out with hit after hit, and then her descent into tabloid fodder as her marriage to Bobby Brown became troubled and her drug addiction worsened. Macdonald treats his subject matter with tremendous respect, and ultimately, the film’s persistence in contextualising Whitney’s behaviour and her choices is what keeps it from becoming salacious, keeping it grounded firmly in empathy.
It’s also the one reason why I want to forgive the fact that a white man, yet again, is responsible for telling this black woman’s story. That said, Macdonald manages a difficult balance, letting the Houstons themselves tell most of the story, and by and large accomplishes his goal of giving Whitney herself the last word.
The DVD/Blu-ray of Whitney, released 29 October by Altitude Film Distribution, is light on bells and whistles, but does provide some satisfying answers to those who had questions after first viewing the film. There is an audio commentary with director Kevin Macdonald and producer Simon Chinn, and a filmed podcast interview with Macdonald conducted by Edith Bowman (which is mostly just a condensed version of Macdonald’s comments in the audio commentary).
The audio commentary discussion centres less on the film’s content and more on the process by which the story was uncovered. Macdonald speaks often of the film as an investigation, and in that sense the revelation of abuse is a compelling resolution. Listening to Macdonald gives a greater appreciation for the way the film conveys the experience of discovery without trying to force the narrative in a particular direction. Macdonald also offers some interesting insights into the process of interviewing key family members, some who were initially reluctant to open up, and others who seemed to find an element of relief in their confessions.
Another main topic for Macdonald is why he wanted to make the film. He references a conversation with Whitney’s agent in which she told him “I loved her but I never understood her.” That conversation planted the seed, and a subsequent article on Houston’s famous Super Bowl performance of The Star-Spangled Banner, which is given a lot of screen time in the film, was sufficient to cement Macdonald’s interest.
Overall, the commentary is worth a listen for any mega fan of Houston’s, and anyone curious about the why and how of the film’s construction.