Is there anyone among us who isn’t familiar with the tragic trajectory of Whitney Houston? Born to gospel-music royalty, a child prodigy whose voice and graceful demeanor propelled her into superstar status as pop’s reigning diva, Houston ultimately died alone in a bathtub at 48, after years of abusing cocaine.
That grievous arc is drawn with intelligence and sensitivity in “Whitney,” Kevin Macdonald’s documentary that portrays Houston as an artist, a cultural phenomenon and, in the end, a victim of unscrupulous and abusive family members as well as a trainwreck-addicted tabloid culture. Like 2015’s “Amy,” about Amy Winehouse, “Whitney” threatens to be another formulaic rise-and-fall tale of a little girl lost to her own self-destructive impulses. But, like that film, “Whitney” transcends the conventions of the form, delivering a powerful reminder of the breathtaking talent she possessed and the monumental future that was squandered on the altar of selfishness and greed.
Although “Whitney” follows a familiar structure, Macdonald infuses it with artful editorial choices, marking the chapters of Houston’s life with brief but vivid montages of the times in which she lived: The film begins at her zenith during the go-go Reagan years of the 1980s but quickly cuts to jagged images of the 1960s images of riots in Newark, N.J., where she was born in 1963. The film traces her beginnings singing in the black church, often alongside her mother, Cissy, a gospel star in her own right. Her father, John, was an operator in corrupt local politics, and the two were rarely home, a fact that circles back in “Whitney” with horrifying implications.
In terms of the facts of Houston’s life, “Whitney” doesn’t offer much more insight or emotional heft than last year’s equally moving “Whitney: Can I Be Me.” The biggest difference is that this film is produced by Houston’s sister-in-law Patricia, meaning that many more family members are interviewed, including her brothers, Gary and Michael. Surprisingly, that access also produces the film’s most shocking revelation, when it is alleged that Whitney was abused as a child by a close relation.
That moment might be the most startling in “Whitney,” but it is by no means the most memorable or even distressing, as viewers hear accounts of Houston’s hyper-controlling father breaking up her close attachment to longtime companion Robyn Crawford; witness her husband, Bobby Brown, refuse to come clean about the couple’s drug use; and observe their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, fight and succumb to her own demons.
(As in “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” Crawford isn’t interviewed here.) Throughout Houston’s career, she was dogged by criticisms within the black community that she was “too white,” at one point inspiring Al Sharpton to call her “Whitey Whitney” (just a few years before he would opportunistically take to the airwaves to mourn her passing).
What lingers, above all else, is Houston’s voice: soaring on her national TV debut in 1983; commanding millions on her one-and-only take of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl; electrifying anyone within range, whether in rehearsal or performance. She should have had it all and for a minute there, she did. Almost.
Rated R for language and drug content