Outside of Michael Jackson, perhaps no performer in the last 50 years experienced a more meteoric rise and more devastating downfall than Whitney Houston, whose life story is the ultimate cautionary tale about the perils of fame and fortune.
That’s the basis for Whitney, an intimate but uneven documentary from Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (Marley) that details both Houston’s extraordinary music career and tumultuous personal life, unfortunately revealing the typicality of her tragic saga among the rich and famous.
The film traces her working-class roots as the daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of Dionne Warwick, heavily influenced by gospel and soul music before her personal tastes gravitated toward mainstream pop anthems. During early performances in the 1980s, we see glimpses of her magnetic stage presence, her legendary vocal dexterity, and her charismatic personality that led to mainstream superstardom in both music and movies.
Behind the scenes, of course, things gradually turned much more volatile after she married fellow singer Bobby Brown. Houston became a neglectful mother, endured a reckless cycle of drug abuse, became mired in tabloid scandals, and squandered her fortune. She never recovered, dying in a hotel bathtub in 2012.
There are some mild insights along the way, some more revelatory than others. The film downplays the role of music executive Clive Davis in Houston’s development (arguing that her mother was much more influential), explains her childhood nickname “Nippy,” confronts rumors about her bisexuality, and chronicles her unforgettable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991.
As with any even-handed examination of Houston’s life, the film both celebrates her talent and mourns the circumstances behind her downward spiral. In particular, Macdonald smartly exhibits disdain for her despicable team of greedy handlers and lowlife enablers, some of who get defensive on camera.
Within its mostly straightforward chronology, the film assembles a well-researched compilation of interviews and archival footage — sprinkling in montages of political and pop-culture touchstones — too often teasing moviegoers with trivial details while we’re left waiting for anything of substance. There’s a bombshell at the end that will likely upset fans, while its placement feels a bit manipulative and exploitative.
Whitney avoids mere hagiography while still exhibiting sympathy for its subject, although a tighter focus could have been more emotionally impactful. Unlike this documentary, Houston’s music will never be forgotten.