'Whitney' - Review - Chris At The Pictures

Thursday, 19 July 2018

'Whitney' - Review

★ ★ ½ ☆ 

Like a stone upon the surface of a lake, this documentary detailing the life, labours and loves of pop star Whitney Houston skims close to many truths, but eventually sinks in search of a scoop. Academy award-winning writer-director Kevin MacDonald’s handling of his topic is efficient but oddly heartless: emotional moments (Houston’s famous performance of ‘I Will Always Love You’ in Johannesburg, camera-phone footage of her disastrous comeback tour in 2010), would pack a punch even without the context of the doc’s wider story. Her key chart-toppers are placed by MacDonald and his editor Sam Rice-Edwards into the wider context of America’s various conquests throughout the seventies and eighties and up to the turn of the century, fragmenting the film as it tells the various stages of her story.

Unfortunately, these bookmark montages are emblematic of a wider problem with the film: it’s all about how Whitney’s story unfolded before the world, but never how the world shaped her story or her music. Interviews with various members of her family dig a little deeper into her constant battle with drugs, her sexuality, her family’s background in black gospel singing and what her success meant to that community, but the singer’s own words - already hard to come by, as Houston made very few TV interviews - are notable only by their infrequence. Whitney’s glittering construction and swift pace leaves little room for reflection, with an unedited home video recording of Whitney and her mother, post-performance, serving as the only real pause for thought.

As with Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me?, perhaps the fault lies with a white British director taking on a subject so inherently tied to the voice of black America in the last decades of the twentieth century. In the case of Kevin MacDonald, we even have a storyteller who, by his own admission, was not fond of Whitney Houston before starting his research and found the whole sorry affair of her death “distasteful”. The whiff of a smoking gun is detected in the air towards the conclusion, but with the Houston family and her closest friends decidedly split about who or what was to blame for her tragic end, it’s a feeble finale.

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