Whitney December 24, 2018
collection of clips plopped down in the middle of Whitney (2018), Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary about the singer Whitney Houston, drill in how severely she fell out of public favor. After we relive an infamous 2001 tribute to Michael Jackson, during which she appeared withered, Macdonald lays out the other ways she became a tragic object at which the public and media seemed more inclined to sneer than feel
We watch an excerpt of a MADtv (1995-2009) skit called “Whitney Houston Screws Up the Classics,” in which the cast member Debra Wilson, impersonating the singer, sits on a stool, jazzily smoking a cigarette, and performs carcinomically and incoherently — a jab at both Houston’s then-diminishing vocals and her well-documented, drug-addled, flighty behavior at the time. Then we watch a portion of an episode of Family Guy (1999-present), in which an animated Houston cameos and is defined as a vortex of disorientation and vagarity. The compilation climaxes with a 2002 interview with the TV journalist Diane Sawyer, which became indelible not because of its emotional rawness but because of Houston’s unintentionally funny, denial-ridden blazoning. “Crack is wack!,” she declared after Sawyer pondered if the drug in question had at all been a fixture in Houston’s life.
Whitney intends to serve as a comprehensive biographical look at its subject. But it is interested in Houston in ways that come across as disconcertingly in sync with the tone of the previously mentioned talking points. Macdonald, who has hurtled from fiction to documentary filmmaking throughout his nearly 25-year-long career, does not helm with quite the same subtle clemency of Asif Kapadia and Brett Morgen, who, respectively, helmed the Amy Winehouse-concerned Amy (2015) and the Kurt Cobain-centric Montage of Heck (2015), which were both frank but sympathetic.
Macdonald’s characterization of Houston scraps romanticization, and very little about her musical influence is probed, besides a particularly mesmerizing stretch revolving around the making and performance of the “Star Spangled Banner,” at Super Bowl XXV, in 1991. The feature feels first inclined to discover whether there was a root to her unspooling, resembling the way tabloids, and the public, hungered for prurient behind-the-scenes details until she died, in 2012. I came away with a better understanding of the context surrounding Houston’s ascent and decline, but the nucleus of Houston the person remained an abstraction.
The film does an effective job accentuating the various ways Houston’s passell of loved ones enabled her. We learn, for instance, that it was not the singer and dancer Bobby Brown, to whom Houston was married for 15 years, who energized her drug addiction, but her brothers. It’s stylistically inventive, too: Macdonald intersperses visual documents of key cultural events, like the 1967 riots in Newark, which smudged Houston’s childhood, as a way to reflect the personal unrest the singer glossed over in her music. But the way Macdonald reveals previously unknown information — like her purported bisexuality (which was covered, in more detail, in 2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, which I haven’t seen) and possible childhood sexual abuse of Houston by her first cousin, Dee Dee Warwick — are treated as if they were headlines. Though the claims, for as little time as Macdonald spends expanding on them, are persuasive, they are exiguously and messily developed.
On Letterboxd, the cinephile-courting social networking site, the popular user Matt Lynch suggested the movie get a treatment akin to the five-part miniseries O.J.: Made in America (2016), which explored the intersection of race and celebrity and how it tied to its central subject, O.J. Simpson. It is clear that everything Macdonald wants the movie to be cannot be dealt with in the scope of two hours. The movie is engaging, and is revelatory, but often feels dispassionate and controversy-baiting as a result of its prioritizing of flammable disclosure over personhood. B