Kevin MacDonald’s 2018 documentary delves into the life of the incredibly talented and hugely successful recording artist Whitney Houston, looking at her childhood in Newark and how her influential mother inspired her to follow a life filled with music, later going on to cover her rise to fame, her relationships with her friends, family and daughter, her career highlights, her infamous marriage to Bobby Brown, and eventually her downward path into drug use and the troubles facing her music career.
In all honesty, I was never exactly a fan of Whitney Houston, despite acknowledging that she was indeed gifted and influential, and I only watched this particular film because it was a preview screening especially for Odeon Limitless members. There were plenty of times when I even considered just giving it a miss but ultimately, watching this film was 100% the right call because Whitney turned out to be a very informative, powerful and proficiently crafted documentary, much in the same way that Asif Kapadia’s Amy was.
The film is a very compelling portrait of the famous singer and, even to someone like me who didn’t know too much about her beforehand, only the big stories of her drug use and troubled marriage, it is never boring or dry and MacDonald makes sure that there’s always something interesting to be said. It paints an extensive picture of her whole life, paying close attention to the huge impact that her influential mother had on her and later on, the film passionately showcases many of Whitney’s incredible accomplishments, such as her magnificent rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl (cleverly shown alongside war footage that illustrates the socio-political context for black Americans at the time) and her well received performance in The Bodyguard – leading to her increased popularity in South Africa and the first singing performance in the post-apartheid country. Even to a “non-fan” like me, these moments genuinely amaze and listening to her at the peak of her abilities is mightily impressive and breathtaking.
And alongside all the highs, the film reveals plenty of secrets and shocking revelations regarding the famous singer, delving into the lowest parts of her life such as her worrying weight loss, the contempt that the R&B/soul community soon felt towards her, her disastrous comeback tour and a revelation of past childhood trauma. To someone who was hearing all of this for the very first time, these moments were brutally powerful and disconcerting and in this regard, the film succeeds in being bold, honest and enlightening.
Whitney is also mightily impressive on a technical level (which, for me, is an admirable quality in a documentary – the directorial techniques that keep things engaging and innovative) and in particular, MacDonald uses montages that are accompanied by Houston singing in order to transition to different chapters of her life, to skip “the story” ahead a few years, and to illustrate what events were occurring during the given period. This is demonstrated very early on when it appears as though the film is going to begin by diving right into Whitney at the peak of her career, showing plenty of positive footage that’s overlayed with the upbeat “How Will I Know” but is then abruptly interrupted by footage of the 60s riots, leading directly in to her childhood and upbringing – an unexpected and effective “false start”, if you will.
And the very best use of this, the highlight of the whole film that’s actually showcased in the film’s trailer, is the montage that occurs straight after Whitney’s first television appearance that illustrates her rise to the top; “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is played with no musical accompaniment and with an added echo effect over archive footage. It’s a little hard to describe but this early sequence is haunting, imaginatively innovative and incredibly effective, filling the audience with a sense of awe and appreciation at the takeoff of her highly successful career.
For this documentary, MacDonald has assembled a very extensive and impressive host of interviewees and the scores of people include many members of Whitney’s extended family as well as close friends, music executives, her stylist (who lightens the mood when talking about Whitney’s attitude to sex) and even Kevin Costner; all of the participants are totally honest, incredibly willing (except perhaps Bobby Brown!) and all have something interesting to say but what struck me most was how well the interviews were filmed. The people are perfectly framed against several appealing backdrops and, much like in Film4 interviews here in the UK, they all face the camera directly and are framed in head-and-shoulders shots, allowing us to look directly at them and to empathise with all that they’re saying. Maybe it’s a weird thing to appreciate but the interviews look incredibly polished and immaculate and praise needs to go to MacDonald and Nelson Hume for his crisp and clear cinematography.
Whitney is literally a birth to death biography so there’s clearly an extensive amount of material to comb through and while the documentary arguably gives us plenty of bang for our buck by covering all the bases and telling as much about her life as possible, many “story elements” are somewhat skimmed over as the film moves on, only touched upon briefly before moving on to another part of her life. In the closing sections, it all becomes a little scattershot and perhaps a tad unfocused as it doesn’t commit to a certain section of “the story” for long enough as MacDonald perhaps tries to tell too much, not elaborating when it’s needed. The film editing is also a bit too abrupt in places as too much is packed into the various montage sequences, not giving us quite enough time to take it all in, and small sections of interviews and archival footage are removed, leaving the preceding and following footage to be roughly stuck back together, the editing cuts being too noticeable and jerky.
In summary, even though I had little to no expectations for this film, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it; as any documentary should do, I felt as though I learned a lot from it and I appreciated how very well researched and crafted it all was. As mentioned before, it’s remarkably similar to 2015’s Amy – both films tell of the turbulent journey of a naturally gifted singer and an “old soul” who was incredibly passionate about music, documenting her rise to fame, her fractious relationship with her opportunist father and troublesome husband, her horrible drug addiction and there are even sections in both where we see how they were made fun of in certain TV shows.
I’m also pretty sure that this is the first documentary that I’ve ever seen in the cinema. So that’s weird.