Whitney Houston made transcendent music that established her as one of the world’s true icons. She also had a massive problem with drugs that resulted in her tragic death at age 48 in 2012. Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary, Whitney, had to address both of those things and more, but the line between being truthful and being salacious can be a thin one.
At the very least, the documentary is authorized and extremely thorough, digging into every aspect of Houston’s relatively short life. The film, executive produced by Houston's sister-in-law Pat, features interviews with the singer's brothers, mother, sisters-in-law, record label executives, and many others who were with her on a daily basis.
As is the case with far too many entertainers, Houston’s life was full of demons and secrets that were antithetical to the fun, bubbly image she portrayed early in her career. Introduced to drugs by her brothers at age 16, she would be haunted by addiction for the rest of her life.
But, according to interviewees, the drugs might have been a way for Houston to escape other bad things in her life. They included a demanding mother, a megalomaniacal father, her music being labeled as "not black enough," a history of sexual abuse, an inability to explore a public relationship with her friend Robyn Crawford, and the inescapable stresses of fame.
For anyone who didn’t follow Houston’s life closely, many of these subjects might come as a surprise. And while, in the context of a documentary, it’s worthwhile delving into negative topics, Macdonald seems to almost revel in them. The high points of her career (seven straight No. 1 songs, Super Bowl national anthem, The Bodyguard, etc.) are addressed, but Macdonald juxtaposes them with either negativity in her own life or the world at large instead of letting them stand on their own merits.
When a star shined as brightly as Houston's did before spectacularly crashing to Earth, perhaps it’s unavoidable for the documentary about her life to feel so dark. But, like her mother had hoped, Whitney Houston's music continues to live on, and it would have been nice if Macdonald had acknowledged that fact more than he did.
Whitney is about as far away from a fan-service documentary as you can get. It is a brutal viewing experience, with her legendary music mostly serving as a background for the sadness and despair of her personal life.