‘there were several times that the devil tried to catch me; but he never understands me…” Since her death in a Beverly Hills bathtub in 2012, singer Whitney Houston has been the subject of a host of articles, books, TV shows, and (most recently) movies, poring over the details of his spectacular rise and fall. Last year, Nick Broomfield’s unauthorized but surprisingly sympathetic film Whitney: Can I Be Me used behind-the-scenes footage from a ’90s tour to paint a portrait of an exhausted artist torn between identities: sexual, racial, and commercial.
Now, Kevin Macdonald, whose impressive directorial resume includes Touching the Void and Marley, enters the scene with an authorized documentary, produced with the help of the Houston family and estate, revealing a wealth of interviews and material archive. Not having been a fan of Houston music before, Macdonald says he was initially reluctant to take on the project, until the singer’s longtime agent, Nicole David, told him, “I don’t understand why it ended up the way I did.” in which it ended I want you to make a documentary to help me find out.” Through a mixture of vox-pop psychoanalysis and assiduous investigation, Macdonald duly plays the celluloid detective, attempting to “solve” the mystery that forms the backbone of this film. Against all odds, he finds what appears to be irrefutable proof: a breaking revelation that has been the subject of much press interest since Whitney’s Cannes premiere in May.
while broomfield attributed houston’s unhappiness to a wide range of identity crises (despite a street upbringing, she was touted as a bland pop princess, leading to “devastating” boos at the soul train awards in 1989 ), macdonald clings to a comment from an old interview the singer gave to british dj simon bates. When asked what made her angry, she replied, “child abuse,” prompting Macdonald to ask Whitney’s siblings if they knew what she was referring to. the trail leads to a (now deceased) cousin, whose depredations lie at the center of an ongoing family trauma.
by jarringly interspersing journalistic material with deconstructed images (visual and auditory) of a supposedly poptastic life, macdonald creates a vivid collage that juxtaposes the public and personal spheres. meanwhile, an impressive array of friends, relatives and colleagues reminisce about his trials and tribulations, often with their own agendas. some are less than forthcoming. Whitney’s famously tough mother, gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston, only opens at the church where her daughter (nicknamed “Nippy”) first learned to sing. Ex-husband Bobby Brown refuses to confront or even acknowledge the fact that drugs played a role in her tumultuous marriage. As for Robyn Crawford, Houston’s closest confidant once again refuses to talk about their relationship, which appears to have been supportive, candid, and at times sexual.
Like Oscar-winning Amy, played by Asif Kapadia, it’s impossible to watch Whitney without a sense of voyeuristic guilt, particularly when confronted with light-hearted media stories about her imploding life, and comedy shows that turn his tragedy in the white of petty stories. jokes really, there’s nothing entertaining about watching someone’s life fall apart, public figure or not. But what keeps the Kapadia and Macdonald documentaries afloat is the reminder of the talent that existed before the tragedy struck.
my favorite sequence in whitney is a description of his super bowl rendition of the starry banner in 1991, engagingly explaining the significance of the change from the traditional 3/4 waltz step to 4/4 time in what houston performed the anthem. Taking Marvin Gaye’s poignant performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star game as an example, Houston found space between the notes to turn a battle hymn into a song of freedom, with still chilling results. As with Marley’s playful depiction of the jumpy difference between ska and reggae, Macdonald’s film nails a simple musical motif on which hangs a significant cultural shift.
There are other impressive musical moments (some frustratingly fragmentary) in which Houston’s extraordinary voice breaks through the growing calamity of her private life. In the end, whether or not you believe that Macdonald has “solved” the question of his self-destruction, that voice remains as mysterious as ever: ineffable and unforgettable.