This review originally ran during the Sundance Film Festival.
Movies often come in pairs, and now the world has two Whitney Houston documentaries, released within a year of each other, and plenty to pore over regarding the late singer’s turbulent life. But the recent release of last year’s Showtime documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me is not the reason Whitney feels familiar. Rather, it’s the recent spate of gone-too-soon bio docs in general, which have started to coalesce around a template. Many of these — Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Cannes player Amy among them — make an effort to unpack the subject’s life and creativity in equal or greater proportion to their infamous deaths. Those that can do that and avoid feeling completely hagiographical usually turn out to be the best of the genre. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary, by contrast, feels like it’s chomping at the bit from minute one to get to its subject’s tragic 2012 death, so much so that the music gets lost.
Case in point: The film opens with Houston’s most joyous, infectious, world-conquering single “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” but Macdonald chooses to intercut with Reagan-era commercial iconography of the big, colorful ‘80s that it soundtracked. It’s hard to tell what exact purpose is served by splicing together Houston’s DayGlo face from the music video and breakfast cereal commercials, especially so early in the film’s account of events. Is the first impression Macdonald wants to give of Houston that of a product of capitalism? Later, the song is revisited, this time with the a cappella track, and the flag-waving Coke-drinking footage gives way to images of war and missiles, jolts of static interrupt the song.
Why is Macdonald’s film so intent on deconstructing Houston before ever even attempting to build a portrait of her? When the subject of her drug addiction comes up, he speaks to several family members, who refuse to answer Macdonald’s question. “We’re talking about her life — drugs weren’t a part of her life,” one says. It comes off as wildly in denial, of course, but as the film goes on one has to wonder if there wasn’t some trust issue also at play between the director and subjects. (Other people less personally close to Houston seem much more disingenuous in their ignorance. Producer L.A. Reid shows up to assert that he “never knew there was an addiction problem,” that it must have been kept away from him. The line got a hearty laugh at my screening.)
Elsewhere, Macdonald has more reportorial success. The background on Houston’s iconic performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” is insightful and filled with great anecdotes — little details, like the decision to put it in 4/4 time to more easily read as gospel, give new color to an endlessly played-back piece of pop culture history. But most will remember Whitney for its bombshell revelation: Houston’s longtime assistant Mary Jones tells Macdonald that Houston was molested at a young age by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick. That comes late in the film, during one of Houston’s darkest periods of addiction, and presented like a third-act twist in a thriller, as if that one incident alone elucidates all of Houston’s struggles. Certainly, it can be seen to have played a part, especially in Houston’s desperation to make her chaotic marriage to Bobby Brown work. But to treat such a private, painful incident as a missing key to a tabloid story feels more than a little mercenary. Other speculations that the incident informed her sexual orientation, and her relationship with Robyn Crawford, dug into with more detail in Can I Be Me, seem iffy at best, irresponsible at worst.
When Macdonald finally arrives at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, his camera travels down its hallways as if playing the reaper himself, arriving at Suite 424 and floating through the suite toward the bathroom. The camera lingers on the bathtub for an uncomfortable amount of time, gawking morbidly without adding any substance to the grisly historical fact of her death. The hotel scene is treated more reverently and given more space than any of Houston’s songs, with the possible exception of her goosebump-inducing first TV appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. Two biographical documentaries in, and it still feels like we’re in need of a Houston film that digs into her music first, and the hows and whys of its enduring power.