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Whitney: Documentary portrait of late singer Whitney Houston
July 9, 2018
Documentary Whitney starts as a blank canvas graduallyfilled in with simple blocks of florescent colour appearing with echoes of the instantly recognisable drum tease of claps and programmed pings of Whitney Houston classic I Want to Dance With Somebody. Viewers anticipate for Whitney Houston to appear, all 80s brash in her frou frou skirt, long blonde curly extensions and her big bold rainbow eye shadow; looking all fresh, wide-eyed and bushy tailed, an innocence that is to be completely obliterate in years to come. As audiences know of what’s to come, this opening in some perspective is quite chilling.
Inevitably a few hours in writing this review, I would catch myself deep down a Whitney Houston YouTube rabbit hole, from the healthy, bouncy happy days of How Will I Know to her career heights of The Bodyguard and her stratospheric hit, Dolly Parton’s cover I Will Always Love You to her slightly erratic performance in the video for yet another stellarpop tune Its Not Right But Its Ok of the late 90s to her all-rooting come back of the late noughties, a frailer Whitney giving a train wreck of a performance of her last hit single Million Dollar Bill on the X-factor.
It’s a meticulously edited documentary, with a plethora of multi-media material comprising of music videos, live appearances, TV interviews, backstage footage as well newly revealed personal video footage, all mixed in with talking heads. My YouTube jaunt mirrors the narrative of Whitney as director Kevin McDonald constructs her life and career, having unprecedent access to unseen pictures, personal video footage and interviews with family members, husband Bobby Brown, record execs and even Kevin Costner himself.
Obvious comparisons to be made with last year’s documented biopic, Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me. However, Whitney is a seemingly more tasteful, less speculative and salacious affair. As McDonald scans Houston’s life from childhood to her tragic death; he investigates her familial relationships, her musical tutelage, her aspirational parents who discovered their daughter’s talents early on and forcefully, at time, honed-in on them and thus leading to her meteoric rise to fame. As revelation upon revelation surfaces, Whitney makes for an exuberant viewing but ultimately a very sad figure in Houston emerges.
The chronicling of Houston’s life, unavoidably unearths various sore points: her troubled marriage, her extensive drug use, her calamitous relationship with daughter Bobbi Kristina as well as her much-publicized and yet still ambiguous sexual leanings, referencing her intimate relationship with elusive childhood friend-come-assistant, Robyn Crawford. But above all get a new controversial disclosure of hers and her brothers sexual abuse as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick (singer/songwriter Dione Warwick’s sister).
Bobby Brown’s interview falls short as when the definitive moment arrives for him to talk about his and his wife’s drug use, he refuses to talk, which is infuriating, perhaps even more so for McDonald. His interview does hint, along with the more divulging interviews from Houston’s siblings, manages to flip some public preconceptions are misleading. Houston was the actual instigator in the couple’s drug taking and the notion that she may have been this ‘deer caught in the head lights’ persona, was untrue. Multi-people in Houston’s circle tried over many years to help her to no avail as she was refusing to let them. Furthermore, on the topic of her sexuality and her rumoured sexual relationship with Crawford, the notion that Houston was a repressed gay woman maybe an oversimplification, especially under the light of revelations of her being sexually abused in her formative years.
As internal dynamics of the Houston family are exposed, the foundations of this familial bonds lie in that things are never talked about, but hushed away and taken to the grave. A behaviour shared by Houston’s wider circle, with Arista Records CEO LA Reid flat out claiming he was not aware of any drug taking when it was already a well-publicized fact. Furthermore, concerning the mystery surrounding Houston’s sexuality, McDonald like Bromfield fails to fully uncover what the relationship with Crawford was. Crawford to this day remains tight-lipped, refusing to be interviewed. The one thing, which both documentaries as well as countless of other tribute features highlight is the troubling fact may have been neglected daughter which doesn’t bid favourably on Houston as a person.
As Houston’s reputation is continually dissected and trashed in post-mortem documentaries, its unavoidable that the shine of Houston’s star is dimming somewhat, after all you are watching a train wreck happen with an already known outcome. I through this in depth analysis of myth that is Whitney Houston, what emerges is a troubled yet incredibly talented person. Hopefully it is her talent that stays with us and in the simplest of ways, like hearing I Wanna Dance With Somebody at some wedding disco or I Will Always Love You playing on the radio in a late night taxi ride home.
Whitney is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_