Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney marks the second documentary to delve into the life and career of Whitney Houston. Following on from Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s behind-the-scenes portrait of the star with last year’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, Kevin Macdonald’s rather conventional documentary is a heartfelt, yet curiously distant deconstruction of Houston’s private and public lives; a documentary that acknowledges the ubiquity of her music career, but tends to treat it as an escapist aside amid darker spirals of addiction and marital affairs.
Though no doubt conducted and constructed better than Broomfield’s wanting doc, Whitney still feels more like an investigation into the Houston image than a gateway into Houston herself. Though archive footage and well-balanced interviews with friends and family give fun glimpses into the icon’s childhood (her father, and many of her family more readily addressed her as “Nippy”), the documentary is lacking the personal touch to make Houston’s story truly affecting. This is quite possibly a documentary well-suited to those (and they must exist somewhere) who are less familiar with Houston, as fans may find themselves nodding along to the familiar drug addiction and tabloid scandals.
Hours before the film's World Premiere at Cannes Film Festival, experience the official U.S. Trailer for #Whitney. The voice. The icon. The untold true story. #ILoveYouWhitney pic.twitter.com/63aJEQsu41
— Whitney (@whitneythefilm) May 16, 2018
This isn’t to suggest the documentary ever feels exploitative. Macdonald is careful to retain a respectful, sympathetic tone throughout, and makes clear that he isn’t interested in providing an elegy for an already beloved American icon. Even so, Macdonald seems aware that Houston was (and continues to be) a cultural treasure for many people, and does find occasional reprieve in sequences that celebrate her explosive fame. Amongst these are acknowledgements of Houston’s impact on American culture; one uplifting sequence sees the star likening her role in The Bodyguard to Casablanca, recounting how much she “enjoyed being a black woman”; enjoying her body, and affirming that attitude to others.
Equally, time is taken to appraise her explosive fame: the moment she consolidated herself as a modern American icon in her rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and the mesmerising ‘I Will Always Love You’. During its latter half, there’s even motivation to disentangle less-publicised issues surrounding Houston’s romance with personal assistant, Robyn Crawford, and in a moment of genuine revelation Macdonald reveals the star was sexually abused by aunt, Dee-Dee Warwick.
But sympathy doesn’t always breed empathy. Though a well-sourced and researched portrait of Houston’s public image, there are omissions in Whitney that render the personal picture somewhat patchy. Where ex-husband, Bobby Brown refuses to discuss Houston’s drug addiction, Crawford isn’t included at all, which – through no direct fault of Macdonald – prevents the viewer forming a deeper, human connection to a revered pop sensation.