Run time: 2 hour 2 minutes
Stars: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown
Director: Kevin Macdonald
The most alternately heartbreaking and exhilarating film of the year is Whitney, an investigative documentary about Whitney Houston by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland). Houston beat the Beatles and the Rolling Stones by scoring seven consecutive No. 1 singles in America, shot to superstardom opposite Kevin Costner in 1992’s The Bodyguard, and died in a fancy hotel bathtub at 48 in 2012, a hopeless addict in deep money trouble despite having sold 200 million albums.
Yet the film transcends its sordid subject by capturing the incandescence of her talent and, through 75 interviews with almost everyone close to her and a remarkable trove of home movies and rare footage, intelligently probes the complicated, fascinating horror story of her family — a tale with useful lessons for any family troubled by drug (and other) problems.
Macdonald doesn’t fail to document Houston’s soaring achievements. If you don’t weep at her fate, you may tear up to see the crowd’s jubilant response at her South Africa concert shortly after apartheid fell, and her sweet look as Nelson Mandela embraced her. If you forgot how global the triumph of her hit “I Will Always Love You” was, check out the film’s footage of Saddam Hussein using an Arabic version of it as his last presidential campaign song in 2002 (he won).
But what makes Whitney absorbing is its inquiry into the ultimate causes of her downfall. As she says in one of the film’s surprisingly numerous intimate conversations with her over several decades, “The devil is trying to get me — he never gets me, but when I wake up, I’m always exhausted from running.” The leading candidates for the devil who did get her are her father — a corrupt Newark politician-turned-music maven — and her husband, singer Bobby Brown, 49, who’s now sober and on a career comeback.
Her late father pretty much seems guilty as charged, a worse person than even Amy Winehouse’s dad (interviewed in the Oscar-winning 2015 doc Amy), who infamously told her she didn’t have to go to rehab, no, no, no. John Houston, who put profit ahead of his daughter’s health, was the kind of guy who cheated on his wife, Whitney’s mom Cissy, yet was outraged by Cissy's affair with the family’s pastor (which he discovered by wiretapping her phone). Whitney’s dad stole from the public, then from Whitney. He also considered hiring thugs to beat up Whitney’s best friend, of whom he disapproved.
Brown comes off as more sympathetic, even though he ridiculously claims she wasn’t on drugs and clearly helped her plunge into fatal behaviors. The film shows the context of their romance: She was criticized for her crossover success, booed at the Soul Train Awards, and targeted for a boycott by Al Sharpton, who called her “Whitey Houston.” He was a gorgeous, skyrocketing star with no such race-identity anxiety, and sparks flew off him. No wonder she fell for him. Sadly, his career tanked, and now he confesses that his shame and emasculation had a lot to do with his part in their fatal spiral to failure.
Some viewers may fault Cissy Houston, 84, whose own music career was mostly as a backup singer, which hurt because her niece Dionne Warwick, 77, became an enormous star. Warwick’s cousin is opera singer Leontyne Price, so talent and ambition do run in the family. Cissy “poured a lot of that disappointment into Whitney,” says Whitney’s brother Gary in the film. Still, you can see how deeply Cissy loved Whitney in the film’s touching footage of them together.
The biggest villain the film uncovers is Warwick’s late sister, Dee Dee, who recorded the original version of the Linda Ronstadt hit “You’re No Good” and, according to Gary Houston, molested both him and Whitney in childhood. Maybe this trauma predisposed both to addiction. Or maybe the problem was the 300 or so people in Whitney’s entourage, who liked the money she provided, and sometimes needed interventions themselves.
You’ll have to listen to the parade of articulate witnesses and apportion guilt as you see fit. In Whitney’s opinion — as she tells Diane Sawyer in the film — “the biggest devil is me.” Happily, Whitney also immortalizes her sweetness and her angelic talent.