Documentary Whitney starts as a blank canvas gradually filled 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 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 obliterated in years to come. As audiences know of what’s to come, this opening has chilling effect.
Inevitably a few hours in writing this review, I would catch myself deep down a Whitney YouTube rabbit hole, from the healthy, bouncy days of How Will I Know to the career heights of The Bodyguard and her stratospheric Dolly Parton’s cover I Will Always Love You to her ever so slightly erratic mannerisms in the video for another stellar pop tune Its Not Right But Its Ok to her all-rooting come back in the late noughties, a frailer Whitney gave us a train wreck of a performance of 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 as previously unrevealed personal video footage, all mixed in with talking head commenatry. My YouTube jaunt mirrors the narrative of Whitney as director Kevin McDonald constructs her life and career, given unprecedent access to these unseen pictures, and video footage, as well as interview time with family members, husband Bobby Brown, record execs and even Kevin Costner, the bodyguard 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 times, 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 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 there is the controversial disclosure of hers and hers brother's sexual abuse as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick (singer/songwriter Dione Warwick’s sister).
Bobby Brown’s interview falls short, the definitive moment arrives for him to talk about their durg use and he refuses to talk, proving infuriating, perhaps even more so for McDonald. His interview does hint, along with the more divulging interviews of Houston's siblings, flipping 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. Many people in Houston's circle tried over the years to help her to no avail. 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 sexual abuse in her formative years.
As internal dynamics of the Houston family are exposed, the foundations of this family structure lie in that things are never talked about, 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. The one thing, which both documentaries as well as countless of other tribute features highlight is the troubling fact that Houston neglected her daughter which doesn’t bid favourably on her 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. Through this in-depth analysis of the myth that is Whitney, what emerges is a troubled yet still an incredibly gifted individual. Hopefully it is this 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_