There's a belief that great suffering fuels great art, and many films have attempted to capture that struggle and perpetuate this idea, often spinning their subjects' stories into epic sagas of struggle and success. What we understand now of the life of Whitney Houston - possibly the greatest voice in pop music history - suggests that a documentary of her life would tell exactly that story. However, with his documentary 'Whitney', Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin MacDonald presents a portrait of the legendary artist as not just a tragic figure of circumstance, but of her own wilful self-destruction.
Taking advantage of material from Houston's family - much of it never seen - and unparalleled access to many of those closest to her, 'Whitney' is an unusual documentary often in very thrilling ways. Rather than combing through her life step-by-step, MacDonald choses to focus on significant periods of her life that highlight her development of an artist and her personal struggles. His interest is more in her personal life rather than her work, presenting a portrait of Houston without the veneer of glitz and glamour and using her music and relationship with music as the texture to help inform the story. Along with editor Sam Rice-Edwards, MacDonald constructs a kind of cinematic tapestry of Houston, one that answers many questions but still leaves a sense of a story too complex and troubled to fully comprehend.
The involvement of Houston's family could have been a troubling sign for the film, well-known for protecting what they see as her integrity at the cost of honesty, but in his interviews with them and her friends and colleagues, MacDonald (whose voice is often heard engaging with the subjects) elicits a surprising level of directness from them, resulting in an almost Rashamon effect at points, where aspects of Houston are left unknown thanks to conflicting information. MacDonald somehow keeps an objective view on his interview subjects, and the candidness with which the film explores Houston's family relationships, her marriage, her sexuality, and her drug addiction through the words of those who knew her is a real surprise and a real feat.
Not having the subject themselves there to tell their own story is always a troubling aspect of posthumous documentary storytelling, but Macdonald and Rice-Edwards attempt to circumnavigate that with often very candid personal footage of Houston that's often as arresting as it is enlightening. The Whitney Houston we're given is a Whitney blessed with vivacity, endless dedication to her craft and a surprisingly cracking wit, and the film wisely sets this up as our first impression of her before delving into the more troubled aspects of her life.
As a result, the second half of the film, where her drug addiction and early childhood abuse is more fully explored, hits with greater impact and demonstrates both Houston's remarkable strength and the enormity of her eventual breakdown. As any great documentary should, it gives necessary context but never indulges in further myth-making, being as objective as it can have while demonstrating enormous respect and admiration for its subject.
The Whitney Houston we're given is a Whitney blessed with vivacity, endless dedication to her craft and a surprisingly cracking wit...
As a technical feat, it's often breathtaking, especially in the intelligent way Rice-Edwards mixes and contrasts image and sound in unexpected ways. We're moved through time between specific periods by frantically edited sequences combining footage of Houston, her music and major historical events that give a window to where America was as a country at the time. Houston's enormous talent is impactful enough, but these sequences lend added weight to her legacy, placing her within a sociopolitical context in a way that emphasises her importance as a cultural icon, particularly as an enormously successful woman of colour. It also allows MacDonald to cover many important artistic milestones without having to dwell on them or let them distract from the personal stories he wants to tell. An early sequence in particular that uses a vocals-only version of Houston's 1987 masterpiece 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' lands with shattering impact that sent shivers up my spine and captured perfectly what an incredible artist she was.
Where the film stumbles is only in where it leaves you as an audience, ending with Houston's death. Rather than offering a summary of her legacy and cultural impact, we're left with tragedy and loss, and while that's certainly a powerful place to leave us, it's an overwhelming one and makes the intentions of the documentary suddenly a tad unclear. It doesn't rob the film of its impact, but perhaps could have added even more.
I was an enormous fan of Kevin MacDonald's superb 2012 documentary on Bob Marley, and so had high expectations for his portrait of Whitney Houston. 'Whitney' doesn't disappoint; an often uncompromising and powerful film about a woman who defied circumstance to be one of the great artists of our time, only to be dictated and destroyed by her demons. The material in the film is often remarkable, its use often breathtaking and its impact often enormous. We aren't given Whitney the icon but Whitney the woman, a brilliant and flawed human being driven by ambition and passion, destroyed by doubt and expectation, and leaving instead with something much more powerful - Whitney Houston the artist.