UK Release Date: 6th July 2018
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Gary Houston
Synopsis: A take on the life of Whitney Houston, organised as something of an investigation into how she fell from the top of the music industry to a premature death.
“I’m always running from this giant,” says Whitney Houston early in Kevin Macdonald‘s documentary about her life, “but I know I can make it.” It’s a moment of sad dramatic irony that points to the demons that would ultimately drive one of the most purely talented singers in history to an early grave at the age of just 48. Everyone knows the headline facts of Houston’s story and, indeed, Macdonald initially had little interest in making this documentary. He was asked, however, if he would make the movie as something of an investigation into her death, with the help of her family. The result is an insightful portrait of an icon, albeit one that slightly outstays its welcome.
The documentary is structured around Macdonald’s enviable access to archive footage of the singer, from her childhood right through to the end of her life. There are also numerous talking head interviews with key figures from her life, including mother Cissy Houston and ex-husband Bobby Brown. It’s Brown’s interview segment that is especially unusual, as he’s as massively evasive as you’d expect, but goes as far as to say that drugs had absolutely nothing to do with her death – an obviously nonsensical viewpoint.
Whitney works in painting a picture of a musical legend, telling the story of her rise from church choirs to global megastar. In similar fashion to Asif Kapadia‘s brilliant Amy, Macdonald features clips of Houston railing against the fakeness and constructed reality of fame, grimly foreshadowing the way it would ultimately work to tear her apart. It’s a movie littered with little moments of intrigue, from Houston singing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the Super Bowl to the revelation that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used ‘I Will Always Love You’ as a campaign song.
Much like the fashion world doc McQueen earlier this year, Whitney feels like an exhaustive and detailed depiction of its central figure and therefore, its running time is inevitably rather long and unwieldy. A more focused take on this story would likely have been even more enjoyable. Did anyone really need 10 minutes on the remake of Sparkle in which Houston starred?
It’s when he focuses on the circumstances surrounding Houston’s decline that Macdonald finds the impetus behind his movie. A scandalous revelation about Houston’s childhood is delivered as a late in the day plot twist and there’s a sense that this could have been more impactful if revealed earlier in the story. The depictions of Houston’s struggle with drugs are harrowing and sad, but Macdonald does not handle this material with the same flair Kapadia managed in Amy. Whitney is a well-made, heartfelt documentary, but it’s squarely in the shadow of better takes on the genre.
Pop or Poop?
Fans of Whitney Houston will find plenty to enjoy in Whitney, which does a solid job of describing her rise to fame, as well as the sad circumstances that led to her decline.
Those who don’t feel as strongly about the singer, though, may find this a slightly too bloated documentary that could have done with a more defined and obvious sense of focus on its central story. Ultimately, it casts the net too wide.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.