I think maybe I never gave Whitney Houston enough credit. God knows I wasn't the only one: even when a superstar changes the landscape before an untimely and tragic end -- the light the burns twice as bright burns half as long, and all that -- it's inevitably that end that people remember most. Especially when, in the end, that person was reduced to a series of punch lines.
When I was a kid and knew nothing about Whitney Houston besides her music, I thought her music was . . . fine. I was too young to understand the significance of her extraordinary talent. And her early uptempo pop hits, honestly, didn't really highlight those talents. The ballads she sang certainly did. When she blew the world away singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991, I wasn't even paying attention.
When it comes to documentaries about specific people, particularly pop stars, naturally I usually see the ones about people I already have some familiarity with. In those cases, the eternal question is whether the film works well even for someone who is not already a fan. Whitney, the new film by Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland), definitely fits that bill. I was never especially a fan of Whitney Houston, never owned any of her albums. Okay fine, for some years I did own a copy of the Bodyguard soundtrack -- I mean, who didn't? -- but as of now the only Whitney Houston track I have in my possession is the Thunderpuss Club Mix of her 1999 single "It's Not Right but It's Okay," gifted to me by a DJ friend. And yet, after seeing Whitney, it struck me as genuinely illuminating. I left the theatre seeing Whitney Houston in a way I did not going in.
Most of that simply comes down to empathy. Whitney Houston's story is a particularly tragic one, with a meteoric rise and a gradual but persistent fall. What Whitney does effectively, though, is invert the narrative that makes the most piteous parts of her story the most memorable. Kevin MacDonald reminds us of her powerhouse talent, and forces us to remember it.
This is a woman who broke many records. Best selling debut album by a solo artist. Only artist to have seven consecutive #1 singles (from her first two albums). She was even the first major artist to play a concert in post-Apartheid South Africa in 1994. A fair amount of time is spent in Whitney discussing what she meant to black audiences, both in America and around the world. And not even any of that compares to when The Bodyguard, whose soundtrack sold 42 million copies worldwide and is one of the five best selling albums in history, in spite of it containing only six of her songs. Still, this isn't just about effective marketing of vapid crowd pleasing pop. It's about a voice to be reckoned with.
Although the context is unique and specific, Whitney still illustrates how that kind of fame can wreck a person, as well as the people close to them. MacDonald gets a remarkably well-rounded group of people to speak on the record, from Whitney's singer mother Cissy Houston, and her siblings, to record producer Clive Davis, to The Bodyguard costar Kevin Costner, to even ex husband Bobby Brown. These names barely scratch the surface when it comes to those speaking on the record.
Bobby Brown actually says, on camera, with a straight face, "Drugs has nothing to do with her life." He didn't want to talk about her drug use. "That has nothing to do with this documentary," he says. Um. What?
Even people with comparatively little familiarity with Whitney Houston -- that would be me -- know that she had a drug problem, and it was what killed her. Some other things that don't seem widely known: at last two people in this film suggest, when discussing an extremely close friend who was a lesbian, that Whitney Houston was bisexual. Perhaps most significantly, two other people confirm that Whitney Houston told them she was molested by a female cousin as a child.
These sorts of things are laid out in Whitney with some very skilled editing, certain sound bites being repeated later in the film, revealing more of what was said than before, and thereby deeply expanding their meaning -- and, in some cases, their tragedy. To MacDonald's credit, this is never done in a gimmicky way. All it ever does is shine a light on what created every iteration of Whitney Houston in a life cut short.
In the end, Whitney Houston was a bigger mess of contradictions than it clearly seemed in the beginning -- in a time when marketing a talent like hers was much simpler. One wonders what a Whitney Houston would have looked like had she been born twenty years later and grown up in the age of social media. As it is, MacDonald gets hold of some clearly very rare early-career home video footage. Some of it is surprisingly delightful: in the late eighties, her mother (unfairly) talking shit about Janet Jackson; in the same conversation, Whitney (quite fairly) talking shit about Paula Abdul.
I do wish MacDonald had included more about the specific stages of Whitney Houston's career, a bit more about specific albums. But maybe that's just my OCD talking. This is a story much more about the stages of this incredible woman's life, who got into drugs quite early on and ultimately paid the price for how blasé she was about it. And that story, as presented here, is an incredibly effective and memorable one, worth seeing whether you regard yourself a fan or not.