“You have three places to sing from: heart, mind, guts. She learned them all.” Cissy Houston.
The synthesizer uptempo pulse is instantly recognizable as the “Oooh yeah” of Whitney Houston’s smash hit, I Wanna Dance With Somebody plays on the screen. Kevin Macdonald transports us into his documentary with that classic, joyful beat as clips from the music video intercut with news and pop culture classic footage from the 60s through to the 80s.
Whitney is not the first documentary about Whitney Houston, nor is it going to be the last, but it is without a doubt one of the best as it honors her legacy, her music and her irrepressible talent.
Macdonald’s film brings us never-before-seen footage of Houston performing a capella versions of her songs, unseen photos, and interviews with family members in this riveting look at a young “Nippy” as she was known to her friends and family, whose talent was clearly apparent at a young age. By the time she was 18, Houston moved to New York and after a brief stint in modeling, she met Clive Davis, signed with Arista Records and with Davis taking her under his wing, she was on track to become one of the biggest female recording stars of all time.
With the cooperation of Houston estate, Macdonald gives us fresh insight and a clearer perspective through interviews into the demons that would tragically claim her life that fateful day on February 2012 at the Beverly Hilton. Cissy Houston (her mother), Bobby Brown and Davis each piece together parts of Whitney’s to shed light on her life and talent. Her assistant, Mary Jones contributes the most and delivers, for the first time, the revelation that Houston was abused by a female family member at a young age.
It’s a story we see all too often, the enablers who were on the Houston train, ultimately serving their own needs and not that of the person who needed help the most. So we watch, heartbroken, devastated, wanting to help and reach out, but we know we can’t. We watch her gradual but steep demise as the addiction worsens.
There’s the suggestion that her longtime friend Robyn Crawford was also a lover but is banished from her life not long after Brown and Houston married. Crawford is labeled “evil’ and we get the sense of homophobia from the family interviews. We’re shown the pressure of Houston, an African-American female singer crossing over into mainstream pop culture in the 80s.
Macdonald punches the documentary with select tunes from her incredible career, serving as a reminder of her immense talent. His gut-punch reminder is the Superbowl performance when she sang the National Anthem. Houston had changed the musical arrangement to a 4/4 beat and sang perhaps the most iconic and memorable version of the National Anthem we’ve ever seen.
There are amusing moments, that for a moment make us smile. Most memorably, when Houston and her mother shade both Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson.
Houston wasn’t just successful in music, she found further success in movies — starring opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. (Having lived in London where the song from that film was number one for fourteen consecutive weeks, I recall amusingly the front pages when a couple were sent to jail for playing the song at an excessive volume and imprisoned for causing noise nuisance.) When Macdonald takes us into the huge success of the movie and the song, he shows that clip and he takes us to Baghdad when dictator Saddam Hussein used the song as his campaign anthem. If you need proof of the global impact of Whitney Houston and her music, that was it. The success of the film and song shot Houston into another realm of icon, one that husband Bobby Brown would never match.
As we go deeper into the downward spiral and the addiction going to hell, Macdonald shows us the sweat-soaked performances, the concerts that leave fans disappointed. It’s painful to watch.
As with many icons whose demons win, we ask Why couldn’t anyone help her? Why didn’t anyone step in? Her father? He sued her and even on his deathbed he still wanted her money. We ask the what ifs? Macdonald further reminds us that Houston did try to sober up and get clean for her daughter Bobbi Kristina.
Macdonald’s documentary is raw. It hurts and is immensely powerful. In the end, Whitney excels at celebrating the legacy and honoring Houston. Fans will enjoy seeing the unseen footage. We walk away with a deeper love and understanding of Whitney the person than ever before.
Whitney is released on July 6.