Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 7, 2018)
Six years after her untimely death, superstar singer Whitney Houston’s life and career becomes the focus of a 2018 documentary simply called Whitney. As expected, it uses the standard format of archival material mixed with interviews.
In terms of new comments, we hear from family friends Laurie Badami, Reverend Deforest Soaries, Keith Kelly and “Aunt Bae”, brothers Gary Garland-Houston and Michael Houston, mother Cissy Houston, former sister-in-law Donna Houston, half-brother John Houston III, sister-in-law Pat Houston, management team member (1981-88) Steve Gittelman, pianist Bette Sussman, bass player/musical director Rickey Minor, Arista Records founder Clive Davis, hairstylist/friend Ellin Lavar, ex-boyfriend Brad Johnson, publicist Lynne Volkman, production company member Debra Martin Chase, ex-husband Bobby Brown, writer Cinque Henderson, songwriter/producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, film agent Nicole David, actor Kevin Costner, personal assistant Mary Jones, bodyguards Ray Watson and Alan Jacobs, Brownhouse Productions’ Steve Lapuk, Arista Records’ Joey Arbagey, and former Arista Records President/CEO LA Reid. We also get archival interviews with Whitney Houston herself.
Whitney takes a fairly standard chronological path, as it traces Whitney’s early life through the start of her musical career in the early-1980s. From there we view her quick rise to stardom, relationships, and ups and downs that pushed toward her death at the age of 48.
When John Lennon got killed in 1980, I felt both shock and surprise. When Whitney Houston died in 2012, I encountered surprise, as I couldn’t foresee she would pass that particular day, but no shock came along for the ride.
The same occurred when Michael Jackson died in 2009. Both Jackson and Whitney had led such troubled lives for so long that no one could feel shocked that they passed, as their premature deaths seemed nearly inevitable.
The filmmakers know that virtually every viewer will enter Whitney with the foreknowledge of her fate, and they don’t resist the urge to lend a sense of foreboding to the movie. For instance, when we meet Cissy Houston, framing shots show a glum-looking woman who looks as though the weight of the past remains on her shoulders.
In other ways, Whitney assumes viewer familiarity with the subject, and that assumption can frustrate, mainly because it means the movie tends to skip over the highs in its subject’s life. While I understand that most people attracted to the documentary will know her hits and her years of success, it still seems odd and incomplete to largely ignore this period.
“Ignore” goes too far, as Whitney doesn’t completely avoid her glory years, but it rushes through them in a frantic push to get to the darkness. Oh my, does Whitney revel in its subject’s foibles and downfall, as it delves into those issues with abandon.
It feels a little odd to criticize Whitney for its lack of “happy time”, but I think the movie needs a better concentration on Houston’s success to set up the downfall. Again, I understand that most viewers already know all her hits and fame, but I don’t think that means the film should rush through those areas.
For a more complete view of its subject, Whitney needs to better remind us of her talents and success. Instead, it throws out lip service via montages but it doesn’t deliver much real substance in that regard, so if you don’t already know Houston’s history, you probably won’t understand why she generated such a fuss.
Whitney does investigate Houston’s demons and flaws well, though I think it shows some hypocrisy in that regard. While the movie takes time to denounce the mockery and furor Whitney received in her darker days, it also revels in those moments and presents some “tabloid gossip” of its own.
In particular, Whitney looks at claims that Houston suffered from sexual abuse during her childhood, and it names the alleged culprit. This segment seems distasteful because it all comes from third parties.
Not only do we never hear Houston herself make the claims, but also the supposed abuser died years ago, so a defense can’t be mounted. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the seriousness of the alleged abuse, but it shocks me that Whitney actually names the supposed culprit based solely on second-hand accounts.
If the film had cited the alleged abuse and left it there, I wouldn’t mind, but the manner in which it identifies the alleged abuser rubs me the wrong way. This serves no real purpose and just takes the film down an unnecessarily sordid path.
Other controversies pop up out of nowhere and don’t really move along a clear path. For example, we hear of a late 1980s protest in the African-American community because some thought Houston became “too white”.
That’s a provocative subject, but Whitney fails to set it up in an effective manner, partly because of the film’s aforementioned refusal to focus on Houston’s career highs. If the movie depicted her ascent and success better, it would bring out a cue for the backlash, but as it stands, the protests come out of nowhere and lack the needed context, so they feel like more random tabloid fodder.
Whitney knows it presents a tragic figure and it desperately casts a broad net to find blame. We get a slew of potential reasons for Houston’s flaws and downfall, as the movie posits her upbringing in New Jersey, her parents’ relationship, the whole “Whitey Houston” protest just mentioned, her ambiguous sexuality, the abuse allegations, her rocky relationship with Bobby Brown and her drug use as explanations.
The truth probably comes from all of the above, but Whitney seems scattered in the way it pursues these leads. It never comes up with much of a thesis and instead chucks out ideas willy-nilly.
When Whitney sticks to its treasure trove of archival footage, it fares best. While we get some good notes from those who knew Houston, I think the most valuable segments stem from the raw material, especially because these clips document Whitney’s ups and downs better than any modern-day interviews can.
We view Houston as a child and during the nascent period of her career through the bitter end, and those moments provide the greatest impact. We can see her musical and emotional decline writ large on the screen, all with depressing results. From the disastrous Diane Sawyer “crack is wack” interview to terrible live performances to her crass behavior with Brown, we see the perky pop princess evaporate before our eyes.
And we occasionally view Houston in that pop princess period, though as noted, we don’t get as much of that material as I’d like. Honestly, I think Whitney would work much better if it consisted mainly of archival footage and let that tell the story with only sporadic interview remarks.
Unfortunately, the film goes in the other direction, so those modern-day conversations dominate. Whitney brings enough valuable material to make it worth a look, but it disappoints in the end because it focuses so much on the negative. The movie lacks balance and fails to endear its subject to us before it takes her down a dark path.