If you saw Nick Broomfield’s Whitney Houston documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, last year, then you may think you don’t need another raking over the singer’s sad life. If so, please reconsider. Kevin Macdonald’s effort is easily the superior film – a deep dive into Houston’s life, with revelations about both the horrors she suffered and the woman she was behind the picture-perfect pop-star.
Any look at Houston’s life is going to be profoundly sad, because it’s a story that, from a distance, makes no sense. A woman who it seemed had everything – a once-in-a-generation voice; global fame; timeless hits – kept crawling back to drugs that would rob her of first her voice, then her life. In interviews with many of the most important people in her life, Whitney finds that the answer to Houston’s downfall is much more complicated than it might appear, certainly not just down to her difficult marriage to Bobby Brown.
Macdonald makes strong use of a mix of archive footage and interviews with Houston’s friends, family and colleagues. Some of the clips reveal a woman more ego-driven than we typically saw. In one clip, taken from a time when Houston’s chart success was waning, she bitches about the popularity of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, who Whitney claims is “out of key on her record”. Interviews with her friends and family are, understandably, much more forgiving, but the combination of the two gives us a rounded view.
There is still one great hole in Whitney, and it’s the same one as Can I Be Me – Robyn. Robyn Crawford was part of Houston’s life for decades and it’s been widely said that the pair were in a relationship. As probably the person who knew her best, Crawford’s side of the story, and insight into Houston’s loves and fears, is the most important one to really explaining her. She didn’t contribute to either film and both feel the lack, using others to speculate on their relationship in a way that’s more gossipy than revealing.
That omission aside, Whitney is a powerful reminder of just what an incredible pop star Houston was, and a sensitive and shocking examination of a life that was far from perfect. A descent that seemed inexplicable starts to make sense as we hear of her fractured childhood and the abuse she suffered, and how the love and safety she sought never quite found her. Expect to cry, and not just at the power of Houston’s voice.