There are two competing visions of Whitney Elizabeth Houston. The first is the angelic singer, part of a near dynastic family of soul singers who exploded onto the pop charts in the 1980s and set the style for generations of performers to come. The other is the tabloid factor, the “Crack is whack”‘ descent of a superstar into a world of intoxication and self-destruction, a wasted talent who succumbed to demons that eventually felled her.
The challenge in telling a story like this is to get the balance right, finding moments to celebrate while not simply obsessing over the salacious tabloid elements, yet equally refusing to shy away from the real challenges, self-perpetuated or otherwise, that Whitney went through during her lifetime.
One need only look at the egregious take by Nick Broomfield last year to see how easily it is to make something that falters in its ability to maintain this balance. In contrast, director Kevin Macdonald has managed this supremely difficult feat, crafting what’s surely the definitive take on Ms. Houston and her career.
What’s most impressive is how the film breaks away from directorial intention and instead lets Houston’s story be told by those who best knew her. Normally this results in a fairly staid retelling, with talking-head interviews that simply reinforce expectation. Instead, here the witnessing is often challenging and contradictory. The agendas of those being interviewed are on full display as they each tell different facets of a greater truth. In many ways, we’re left with more questions about Whitney’s life than before we began, ripping apart our simplistic view shaped by bold headlines and glossy appearances.
‘Whitney’ offers major revelations throughout, none more explosive than a formal accusation made about someone in the singer’s orbit. It’s impossible to judge the credibility of these claims without further context, but they certainly rewrite aspects of her story in important ways. The film is never shy to show the singer’s contradictions, both loving a daughter and not being there sufficiently. It’s an old story to be sure, but since it’s wrapped up in other elements both professional and societal, it demonstrates a greater richness to the tale of Houston.
The most exhilarating moments come with the use of Houston’s music, of course, including some exceptional isolated vocal tracks that remind us of the true talent she was able to muster. Yet from the opening moments, Macdonald also shows the turmoil behind the scenes, shattering through kinetic editing our simple image of the young singer, and finding within a larger story of someone who rose to the highest peaks only to be burned by the light from above.
For those who didn’t grow up with her music, some of the performances will be revelatory. Those who only knew her as a fallen star will find new respect and understanding. And the cynical non-fans will find an exceptionally well-assembled film that manages an extremely difficult task of being true to the subject without devolving into hagiography or scurrilous rumor mongering. This is a journalistically sophisticated music doc that does justice to the story of a remarkable woman, her family and her music.
‘Whitney’ is the real deal.