A breathtaking bombshell lies at the heart of Kevin Macdonald’s documentary, which is all the more poignant for its detachment
Oh Whitney, will we ever get over you? Film-makers aren’t yet close to doing so: newly premiered at Cannes, Kevin Macdonald’s polished and rather stoic documentary is the second in the space of a year to map the crushingly sad trajectory of Whitney Houston’s blazing star burnout, which, as we all glumly remember, ended in a Beverly Hills bathtub six years ago. The forcefully acted, Oscar-grabbing biopic can’t be far off.
As Macdonald’s film hits the long latter portion of its rise-and-fall narrative – raking over facts we already know, images of ruin we’ve already seen, and heading inexorably to an anatomy of her death that Nick Broomfield’s scrappier documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me took us through last year – I felt my throat tightening and my tear ducts prickling. As the crystalline opening notes of I Have Nothing cued the closing credits, I cried, again, as I had suspected I would from the get-go.
You can arrange and present the facts of Houston’s life any which way and attract viewers like me. Three years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy, Whitney returns us to the experience of watching complete self-destruction – of a voice, of a career, of a woman – and being powerless to halt any of it, to offer any care that she might notice or feel. Celebrity culture breaks your heart if you let it and Macdonald knows that: Whitney conducts its interviews and picks out its archive footage with distant journalistic reserve, intercutting it with perfunctory reels of 80s and 90s global affairs, counting on our existing relationship to her self-explanatory tragedy to do all the emotional needling.
This pragmatic approach is not without its compromises. Macdonald’s film is essentially the authorised counterpart to Broomfield’s more speculative, contributor-starved one, with an impressive ensemble of Houston’s family and friends involved as talking heads. That is a mixed blessing, yielding insights and roadblocks in roughly equal measure. Houston’s hard-edged mother, Cissy, is on board, although tellingly only towards the beginning: she is happier to talk about what made her daughter than what broke her. Houston’s calamitous ex-husband, Bobby Brown, surprisingly shows up too, though he has nothing to offer: “Drugs have nothing to do with her,” he says clammily to camera. Thanks for nothing, Bobby, now as ever.
The collaboration of the star’s nearest-and-questionably-dearest does gift the film with one breathtaker of an allegation: that Houston, as a child, was sexually abused by her soul-singing cousin Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne. It’s a bombshell that the film guards almost too protectively, planning and pacing its emergence so carefully that its ramifications feel almost curtailed.
Broomfield would have given his eye teeth for that information, not least because of the context it lends to the much-debated issue of her sexuality – the thematic spine of his film centred movingly on Houston’s intense, stymied, possibly lesbian relationship with her best friend, Robyn Crawford. Macdonald, meanwhile, addresses it more passingly, not managing to draw Brown or Cissy Houston on the evidently contentious subject of Crawford – who, once more, is pointedly not available for interview. One of Houston’s brothers is slightly less tight-lipped, going so far as to describe Crawford as “evil”. The oppressive, strangling presence of homophobia is heavily felt in this increasingly dark family portrait, although Macdonald can’t seem to press further.
As this dense, disagreement-strewn coterie of relatives and advisers continues to weigh in, it is Houston’s own presence that recedes, quite deliberately, from the enterprise. There’s less interview footage than you might expect; performance sequences are few, often drawn from her tattered period rather than her all-too-brief golden age. Beaming, hot-pink flashes of her face from the I Wanna Dance With Somebody video are used as teasing, near-spectral flashes throughout, but we never get the ecstatic whole. It’s a film principally and poignantly focused on the absence of Whitney, an aching void felt as much in life as in death. Many of us missed Whitney even before she left; this imperfect documentary preys calmly and effectively on that longing.