We live in an age where every other documentary reflecting on the career of a musician frames them as being “one of the most important” or “a legend that changed the world” when in most cases it’s a vast exaggeration. Whitney Houston is one of the few that rightfully deserves the plaudits and praise lavished upon her remarkable talent, as she was one of - if not the - most iconic singer of her generation.
Another common trend is to side line the achievements and ability of said musicians in favour of digging in the dirt for juicy personal details akin to a tabloid ‘exclusive’. Asif Kapadia's Amy fell victim to this problem, and Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Ms Houston, Can I Be Me?, wouldn’t have felt out of place on Channel 5. Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney features many of the same issues, burrowing its nose into the trough of the worst kind of modern celebrity culture, reducing the soul of a complex life down to hastily arrived at conclusions to support a morbid fascination with its sad demise.
Whitney was put into production with the blessing of the Houston family, many of whom are interviewed throughout. This includes brothers Gary and Michael, close aunties, mother Emily "Cissy" Houston – a highly regarded gospel and backing singer from the 50s and 60s - and a brief appearance by Bobby Brown, who is probably the most reluctant of all to speak about the darker rumours of their marriage and Whitney’s life.
Macdonald’s documentaries are always well polished affairs and this is no different, a slick production revolving around a core section of talking heads and unseen home video footage of Whitney behind the scenes. He moves chronologically through her musical career, starting with the grooming of her talent by Cissy, that amazing first TV appearance on The Merv Griffin Show, right through to the mega stardom that followed with the huge success of I Will Always Love You at the start of the 90s.
The sorrowful tone is set in the first few minutes, hearing Whitney herself speaking about a reoccurring dream that her mother interpreted as meaning she was being chased by the devil. In comparison, the unprecedented success she experienced throughout the 80s and 90s – which included seven consecutive number one singles and a string of multi-platinum albums – is never given the same level of importance. There is very little celebration of her talent at all, overlooking what she achieved as a female artist and the stage she set for the likes of Mariah Carey and Beyoncé.
Her iconic gospel re-imagining of The Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl helped change how black people in America viewed a song often associated with the country's slave history. The bold move to change the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 influenced how subsequent performers have approached the national anthem ever since. Some time is set aside to discuss this but it feels like a drop in the ocean compared to laser-like focus on Whitney's decline.
Macdonald cannot wait to dig into the misery behind the scenes and the tipping point of Whitney’s career that saw her become something of a laughing stock to a once adoring media and public. This is crystalised later in the film when discussing the drug addiction that led to her death, slowly moving the camera through the hallways of the fateful Beverley Hilton hotel suite before stopping at the bathroom where she took her last breaths. The frame then uncomfortably lingers on the bathtub where a woman tragically lost her life and it feels nothing short of intrusive and utterly inappropriate.
Of course, the highly publicised big reveal is the accusation that Whitney was abused by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne) when she was a young girl. This is confirmed by one or two voices, but also denied by others. Macdonald uses an interview with ex-Radio One DJ Simon Bates as some sort of irrefutable evidence that these events created the demons that inevitably led to her death. Yet, the admission by older brother Gary that he first introduced her to drugs at a young age is quickly forgotten in favour of Macdonald’s preferred narrative. The combination of the two may have been a deadly combination, but it is also equally true that without creating a dependence on drugs as a teenager, she may have found a way to overcome those darker emotions connected to past traumas.
Whitney falls victim to lack of perspective, creating a clickbait headline that sits above shallow and predictable content. The reasons for her death were too public and remain vividly alive in the public consciousness to allow for any sense of distance, her legacy needing at least a couple of decades to breathe before it can be understood in all its meaning. Kevin Macdonald's documentary will send viewers away under the dark cloud of Whitney Houston’s early death at the age of 48. It should be remembered her life was much more than that and it is yet to be given the onscreen treatment it deserves.