Kevin Macdonald opens his haunting, richly contextualized documentary portrait of Whitney Houston with audio from an interview in which she recounts a recurring dream of being chased by what her mother tells her is the devil trying to get her soul. “I wake up always exhausted from running,” she reveals. Contrasting those words with footage of the pop superstar at her most beautiful, bursting with ebullient romantic innocence in the video for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Macdonald swiftly distills the sorrowful essence of his subject, a prodigiously talented, phenomenally successful artist for whom inner peace remained elusive.
Anyone even remotely plugged into pop culture back then will likely have instant recall of the massive global saturation of that 1987 single, one of an unprecedented seven consecutive No. 1 hits from Houston’s self-titled 1985 debut album and its follow-up two years later. At a time when mainstream popular music was dominated by bands, here was a female vocalist who brought equal assurance to power ballads like “Greatest Love of All,” swoony declarations like “Saving All My Love for You,” and wildly infectious confessions of the heart like “So Emotional” and “How Will I Know” that made it impossible to keep your feet still.
I get so emotional, baby.
In two densely packed hours, Whitney maps the mournful descent from that soaring success to Houston’s 2012 death at age 48 in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom, after a turbulent marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown, years of on/off drug abuse and a failed comeback tour for which she clearly was physically unprepared. Macdonald doesn’t gloss over the harsh tabloid exposure or the comedy routines at Houston’s expense after her struggles became public. Seen in this context, a clip from the animated sitcom American Dad! now seems shockingly cruel. But while the documentary never feels sanitized, the tone overall is one of respect and empathy.
Where this film has the edge over last year’s more superficial Nick Broomfield doc for Showtime, Whitney: Can I Be Me, is in the intimate access provided by friends, family and recording industry associates, most of whom appear genuinely invested in getting as close as possible to the real story rather than reiterating the cliches of the archetypal fairy tale turned nightmare.
The least illuminating of them by far is Brown, who shuts down any mention of drug use or its role in Houston’s death despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps he’s exonerating himself from any responsibility in her downward spiral, but he comes off as cold and defensive. However, Houston’s brothers are surprisingly open about introducing her to weed and cocaine while they were part of her tour entourage. But Macdonald digs beyond addiction issues into psychological problems that started much earlier, with one bombshell of childhood trauma that’s likely to be the major revelation here for many fans.
Weaving together family photographs and home movies with present-day talking heads, Macdonald and editor Sam Rice-Edwards retrace Houston’s early life. Her brother Michael describes her as “a rough, tough tomboy,” who acquired the nickname “Nippy.” Her mother, gospel singer Emily “Cissy” Houston, is interviewed in the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where her daughter first sang as a choir soloist at age 12. Recognizing her extraordinary gift, her parents started her on intensive vocal training, and she accompanied her mother to nightclub gigs, where she was eventually pushed onto the stage.
The timeline of those years isn’t always crystal clear, but the key factors are the separation of her parents; her father John’s philandering and the infidelity of her mother with a minister, perceived by Whitney as a double betrayal by both her family and church; her consequent temporary estrangement from Cissy when she left home at 18 to live with her best friend from high school, Robyn Crawford; and her signing to Arista Records, where Clive Davis packaged her to appeal to the widest possible pop market.
Davis is interviewed only briefly, though his influence was a factor in criticism leveled at Houston from African-Americans who deemed her crossover sound too white, resulting in her being booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. Coincidentally, that’s where she met Brown, and Whitney infers that while she did fall in love with him, his bad-boy rep also served to give her black credibility, while he presumably hoped her fame would boost his. But the movie also shows that Houston really needed no help refuting the questionable charge that she had whitewashed her black identity. Stirring footage of her with Nelson Mandela and clips from her 1994 South African benefit concert in Johannesburg are just one example of her pride and solidarity.
Unlike Macdonald’s 2012 doc Marley, about reggae legend Bob Marley, there’s surprisingly little detailed commentary here about what made Houston’s talent so special. Mostly, the music is left to speak for itself in terrific performance excerpts that back up the observation about seeing her live being akin to a gospel service. But her mother notes that singing comes from the abdomen, chest or head, and Whitney mastered all three, which gave her tremendous range. Just watching her first TV appearance at 19, singing “Home” from The Wiz, the modulation from the quiet, almost spoken beginning through the triumphant final crescendo displays her singular command of emotional nuance and phrasing.
That sharp intuition is nowhere better illustrated than in a close look at her landmark performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. Inspired by Marvin Gaye’s loose, jazzy interpretation of the anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, she took a song for which African-Americans had ambivalent feelings, and reshaped it to highlight the theme of freedom. Coming at an especially patriotic time for the country during the first Persian Gulf War, the performance had enormous resonance and still brings tears today.
Attention to Houston’s film career is limited to her big-screen debut, The Bodyguard, and to a lesser extent, the Sparkle remake, which opened after her death. The highlight here is Kevin Costner emphasizing what a big deal it was at the time to have a black leading lady run back down the steps of the plane she’s boarding to kiss her white co-star, while the camera whirled around them. Discussion of that scene as a breakthrough moment is a useful reminder that casting choices we now take for granted weren’t always that way.
In terms of interviewees, the most notable absence is Crawford, though she’s definitely a presence in the film. That’s not just in visual glimpses, but in the acknowledgement by many that she was a hugely influential safety net in Houston’s life, a role resented by some family members who wanted to keep tight control.
There seems little doubt that the long-term relationship between the two women was a loving partnership like any marriage, and that Houston’s decision to wed “straighter than straight” Brown was partly a shield against public scrutiny. A close friend says without any equivocation that Houston’s sexuality today would be described as “fluid.” The clear implication is that she felt the need to choose conventional heterosexual marriage and family to complete the celebrity package.
In what seems like the removal of Houston’s one consistent source of protection, Crawford stepped away after a power struggle with Brown. Incidents of cheating and spousal abuse occurred, along with a growing tendency for Houston to skip professional obligations due to increased drug use. While Macdonald establishes that Cissy got her to agree to go to rehab, John let her off the hook for reasons that seem all too typical. One associate says people treated her like an ATM, and given the lack of other skill sets in her entourage, they had no interest in seeing her get clean if it interrupted the flow of her earnings.
The saddest parts of the story become more sordid, with her idolized father allegedly skimming cash from her business and then after she cut him off, suing her for $100 million. That caused an estrangement that lasted until his death. It seems unthinkable that after selling 200 million albums worldwide, she didn’t have the liquidity to complete a rehab program.
Macdonald is fair yet unflinching in his coverage of this period, in which a former executive from her production company describes Whitney as “like a zombie.” Excerpts are seen from the regrettable ABC interview in which she was needled about her drug use (not your finest moment, Diane Sawyer); concert appearances show her as a sweaty, underweight mess, her voice ragged, leaving fans feeling angry and ripped off. And perhaps most tragically, she was unable to provide stability for her daughter Bobbi Kristina, who repeated her parents’ travails with alcoholism and drug addiction.
Without sensationalizing, the film lays all this out as an American tragedy, not of self-sabotage as some might glibly dismiss it, but the tale of a vulnerable woman never given the chance simply to figure out who she was. The sparing use of Adam Wiltzie’s somber underscoring through the later years makes the trajectory even more acutely affecting. Special mention also should go to Rice-Edwards’ dexterous editing, which establishes the political, social and pop-cultural climate at any given moment with great economy, splicing in images of Houston’s music contemporaries, changes in White House administration, iconic ad campaigns and world-shaking events.
Macdonald’s film doesn’t quite match the searing clarity of Asif Kapadia’s excellent Amy, about fellow fallen idol Amy Winehouse. But then the factors that caused Houston’s life to implode were far more complex and wide-ranging, encompassing race, class, religion and sexuality, as well as greed, financial exploitation, addiction, a bad marriage and deep insecurity. It’s a riveting narrative, and even those not among Houston’s more passionate fan base will find it an emotionally wrenching experience.
Production companies: Lisa Erspamer Entertainment, Lightbox
Distribution: Roadside Attractions, Miramax
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producers: Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn, Lisa Erspamer
Executive producers: Nicole David, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Mike Runagall, Zanne Devine, Rosanne Korenberg, Joe Patrick, Pat Houston
Director of photography: Nelson Hume
Music: Adam Wiltzie
Editor: Sam Rice-Edwards
Sales: Altitude Film Sales
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight)