Whitney

July 27, 2018

Whitney Houston’s story is horribly familiar – which doesn’t make it any less compelling. We’ve been to a very similar place with Amy (2015), Asif Kapadia’s documentary about doomed pop star, Amy Winehouse. We’ve been there with Whitney herself only last year, with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a documentary by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal. Now we have Whitney, by another renowned documentarian, Kevin Macdonald.

What’s the difference? Macdonald’s documentary is the “authorised” biography, approved by Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston. Broomfield struggled to get interviews and had to rely heavily on existing material, with a large part of the film being drawn from Dolezal’s footage of the 1999 tour that turned out to be the singer’s last great triumph.

Broomfield was said to have taken a “negative” approach, beginning the movie with emergency reports from 11 February 2012, the night Whitney drowned in her hotel bathtub, at the age of 48. The tragic tone would never be alleviated, with every scene acting as another step on the road to oblivion. Macdonald begins at the beginning, spending much more time on Whitney’s childhood and her rise to fame. We get the good news before the bad.

This doesn’t mean Macdonald’s film is a whitewash, as there’s no way such a career path could ever be given a positive slant. Macdonald emphasises Whitney’s roots in America’s black popular music traditions and the incredible power of her voice. By the end of the film we see how she was destroyed by family and friends who exploited her success, the multi-million dollar voice reduced to a croak.

Macdonald doesn’t dwell on a point that is crucial to the Broomfield film: that the pop songs Whitney sang were intended to sound as white as possible. Perhaps this is because he was allowed to interview record company impresario, Clive Davis, and was in no position to explore the accusation that Whitney was Davis’s creation. Nevertheless, the extracts from old TV programs reveal how a black girl from Jersey – ie. “the hood” – was transformed into middle-America’s sweetheart.

Many in the black community viewed Whitney as a sell-out from a early stage. She was devastated when the audience booed her during the 1989 Soul Train awards. It’s a moment that arrives relatively early in Broomfield’s film, much later in Macdonald’s.

On the same night that she copped the boos Whitney met “bad boy” Bobby Brown, who would become her husband. Their co-dependent relationship was a catastrophe that neither filmmaker seeks to cover up. Neither does either director play down the importance of Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s closest friend and presumed lesbian lover. When Robyn left the entourage in 1999, after nine years of fighting with Bobby, the wheels began to fall off.

Macdonald’s film is slow to shed light on Whitney’s descent into darkness, but it paints a dismal picture of a dysfunctional family – from the domineering mother whose own career as a singer never took off, to the two spongeing brothers enjoying the drugs and parties on their sister’s payroll. Not to mention the beloved father who sued his daughter for $100 million while on his deathbed.

Macdonald doesn’t interview the bodyguard who wrote an alarmed report about Whitney’s drug abuse and was sacked by the family, but he tells us much more about her father, John Russell Huston, and almost all of it is bad. He is the perfect bookend for Amy Winehouse’s opportunist, manipulative dad. Both were emotional blackmailers who cashed in on their famous children.

Macdonald also goes into greater depth about the ordeal of Whitney and Bobby’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who spent her childhood watching her drug-addled parents staggering around like zombies. The line that everyone repeats is: “She never had a chance.” She didn’t. Bobbi Kristina would die of a drug overdose in 2015 at the age of 22.

The singer who hits the heights and the depths is a showbiz stereotype, but there may never have been a performer who soared so high and sank so low. Whitney still holds the record as the most-awarded female vocalist of all time. She remains the only artist to have enjoyed seven consecutive number one hits. It’s estimated that she sold more than 200 million records. In 2001 she signed a contract with Arista worth $100 million, to deliver six albums from which she would also earn royalties.

Even by that stage she was dangerously thin from drug abuse. In September that year, when she appeared at a Michael Jackson tribute looking skeletal, there was no way of hiding her problems from the world any longer. The word was out, and within a few years the money was gone.

In the final phase of her career Whitney had to go back out on the road to earn a dollar, even though her voice was ruined. Macdonald shows some painful footage from a concert in Brisbane, where the performance begins to sound like a raucous karaoke session. Although movies about fallen stars make us into voyeurs of other people’s pain, for anyone who would like to remember the singer at the height of her fame and beauty it might be a good idea to quietly leave the cinema after the first hour.

Whitney
Written & directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford, Gary Houston, Bobby Brown, Clive Davis, Michael Huston, John Russell Houston, Ellin Levar
UK/USA, rated M, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 July, 2018