Whitney knows it has a scoop on its hands. Kevin Macdonald's (The Last King of Scotland, Marley, Touching the Void) eponymous documentary about the late Whitney Houston, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to mostly positive reviews. It unspools the singer's rise to fame, and muses on her legacy through unprecedented interviews with her friends and family, as well as archival and never-before-seen home video footage.
From them, we learn about Whitney the person, often obscured by Whitney the icon, or Whitney the tabloid headline. We see her clowning around with her brothers before a show, lounging backstage with her mother — soul and gospel singer Cissy Houston — badmouthing rivals Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and later, frantically trying to juggle hair and makeup while cuddling her young daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown. We also get a fresh look at her long-rumoured intimate relationship with best friend Robyn Crawford, who declined to participate in the project.
All this paints a fascinating and human — if unsurprising — portrait of the singer, who was tragically found dead in a hotel bathtub in 2012, at the age of 48. It's a compelling story, but it's familiar territory, and Macdonald knows that.
Perhaps that's why the big revelation drops like a bomb about two-thirds of the way into the film: In an interview, Houston's brother Gary Garland alleges that he and his sister were molested by their mother's cousin, singer Dee Dee Warwick, sister of legendary performer Dionne Warwick, when they were children. It's a twist that certainly makes the film stand out — and in light of the glut of Whitney content out there, including last year's unauthorised documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, directed by Nick Bloomfield and Rudi Dolezal, and a 2015 Lifetime biopic directed by Angela Bassett, that's a difficult trick to pull off.
But what's disappointing is that the allegation just kind of sits there, weighty and present but not fully explored. Partly, that's due to the fact that two of the people involved are dead. Macdonald gets corroboration on Garland's statement from Houston's manager and sister-in-law Pat Houston, as well as longtime assistant Mary Jones, but there can be no real debate, and we can only speculate about the potential effects that these alleged actions may have had on the singer.
Having obtained this information, I'm not faulting Macdonald for using it, but since the magnitude of the allegations automatically makes them the main takeaway from the film, I almost wish he had fully committed and made an effort to frame Houston's life in that context. We are shown one narrative, of an "idyllic childhood," followed by a magical rise to fame, and then a darker one, full of warring factions and shadows lurking under the surface. But it's still up to the audience to put the two together, and tease of the strands of truth.
That's not to say that the director shies away from the singer's other demons. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the fact that it feels as much an effort on the part of Houston's entourage members to rehabilitate their own images, as well as hers. Macdonald doesn't let them of the hook; however, which leads to some tense conversations, like the one in which he presses a very uncooperative Bobby Brown to discuss Houston's drug use, which he continuously denies. He also claims that they were equally famous, which only reinforces the point made throughout the film that Brown pressured his wife to self-efface in order to soothe his ego. To his credit, Macdonald doesn't settle for an easy position where Brown is concerned — while the audience is definitely left with the feeling that Houston might have been better off had she not become involved with him, the film doesn't lay the blame in one place.
Nor does Macdonald absolve Houston herself. Some of the most emotional moments deal with the singer's fraught relationship with her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who also struggled with substance abuse issues and whose death by drowning in 2015 sadly mirrored her mother's.
Less present is any kind of real insight into what Houston's fame meant (or didn't) to Black Americans. We learn that she was teased for being light-skinned as a kid, and that she was hurt by criticism that her music was "too white." We also hear from a pastor recounting the crowds of people who responded to his call to pray for the singer in her time of need. But it all still feels a little superficial. The film's most startling comment on race appears unintentional: that fateful interview with Diane Sawyer, in which Houston coined the phrase "crack is whack," has aged poorly, and comes off as painfully exploitative today.
What does shine through is the music. Houston's voice is the soundtrack of the film, which delves into her greatest hits but also manages to isolate the qualities that made her such a compelling performer. She filled up every room, which is why Macdonald's shrewd use of empty space (shots of Houston's abandoned New Jersey home, interspersed with video of her cooking, laughing, living) is so gut-wrenching. Her absence makes us realise just how vibrant she appeared to us — and what a toll it ultimately had on her.
Whitney is out in cinemas July 6