In an early interview, when asked how she would be remembered, Whitney Houston throws her head back, laughing, and then says: ‘They’re going to write this, they’re going to write that, and they’re gonna have their own idea’. Much like Nick Broomfields’ recent documentary on Houston, Whitney: Can I Be Me, which obviously covers much of the same material, documentary-filmmaker Kevin MacDonald has his own ideas on the meteoric rise and fall of the pop-star. Over the two-hour running time of Whitney, MacDonald attempts to deconstruct the success and the psyche of the ‘once-in-a-generation’ pop star of the late 80s’ and 90’s. MacDonald charts her trajectory from doted child of Newark, New Jersey to her rapid ascent into mainstream pop music to her self-destructive decline in the early 00s and 10s. Gaining access to intimate archive footage and a wide-ranging set of new interviews with family, friends and colleagues, MacDonald’s documentary is a strikingly sad yet probing deconstruction. However, perhaps inevitably, the agency in the subject of MacDonald’s documentary remains spectrally elusive.
Unlike Broomfields’ subdued autopsy, MacDonald builds a compelling if deeply tragic portrait of the young woman through a flurry of archive footage both contextual, musical and personal. Whitney’s voice and goose-bump inducing vocal talent echoes and hovers throughout- an almost ghostly aural thread that MacDonald uses skilfully to weave together the music videos, personal interviews and off-stage intimacy. The overwhelming impression of MacDonald’s heavily stylised form was of a breathless, excitable thrill-ride to the top that ends in a macabre, figurative car-crash- not only for Houston, but those closest to her. It is difficult experience, therefore, as spectator to watch this unfold, eliciting some guilt from this position. That being said, the interviews provide an abundance of affectionate insight (most involved use her childhood nickname ‘Nippy’) and competing theories to her state of mind and actions. A broad picture is painted of her identity, relationships and fate. Views of her overbearing parents, especially mother-singer Cissy Houston; the pressure of becoming ‘marketable’ for White America; the rejection from parts of the black community; and lingering questions over her sexuality, are all given ample space to percolate, give credence to her conflicted psyche beneath the 80’s and 90’s glamour.
This presentation is somewhat problematic in one sense, as it presents Whitney as a pitiable young woman, subject to circumstances beyond her control, of which the source of her ills is seemingly a subject of continued speculation. A sense of her agency, including her fierce musical talent (a spectacular rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the 1991 Super-Bowl, a triumphant moment for the young star, is revealed to be her inspired improvisation), becomes somewhat lost amid the attempts to uncover the root of her tragedy. A specific revelation, much heralded in the criticisms for not being disclosed till now, is dealt with in a dramatic fashion. It is an effective sleight of hand on the filmmaker’s part, however this is far less impactful than supposed. Unsure what to do with it, MacDonald merely allows it to form a part of the many anecdotal suppositions surrounding Whitney’s decline into addictive and self-destructive behaviour. One factor that MacDonald does attempt to skewer is the predatory media salivation over her fall, a questioning of the frenzy reporters and pundits went too over someone in clear need of help and support.
Undoubtedly, MacDonald succeeds in bringing us much closer to the atmosphere surrounding the star in Whitney. Fans will find this effort equally fitting but perhaps too funereal for their icon. What appears to be missing, in my opinion, is the quality that her close friend Robyn Crawford wrote in her 2012 obituary: ‘She was always the one doing the driving…She was the action’. Though MacDonald rightly gives a broad context and the views of those who mourn her, family and colleagues alike, Whitney struggles to let the star be the driving force of her own story.