Film Review: Whitney (UK/USA, 2018) is a bittersweet love letter celebrating the enigmatic star’s rise & tragic downfall

Whitney may not be the most necessary film but it’s certainly an entertaining one. This documentary comes hot on the heels of Whitney: Can I Be Me, but where this latest offering differs is in its unprecedented access to Whitney Houston’s family and friends. The result is an intimate and bittersweet portrait of her meteoric success and her equally tragic downfall.

This film is directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker, Kevin Macdonald who also made Marley about the late reggae artist, Bob. Whitney is a film that counts Patricia Houston among its executive producers. In some hands this would mean that the film is little more than a hagiography. Thankfully, Macdonald avoids this by asking and including some tough questions, even when he doesn’t always get the right answers. Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown for instance, refuses point blank to discuss Whitney’s drug addiction.

Macdonald does an excellent job of providing context alongside the arc of the story. It makes the talking head interviews, archive footage and performance clips all the richer for it. Houston’s fans will probably be familiar with a lot of it but they should still find it enjoyable. They will know that Whitney was the daughter of Cissy Houston, a singer who had toured with Aretha Franklin, among others. Whitney grew up in New Jersey and it was Cissy who taught her how to sing gospel from both her gut and heart. Whitney certainly cuts a very innocent and naïve young figure during her first television performance, which is shown here. It’s quite a marked difference to the artist she becomes.

Whitney – who is nicknamed Nippy – had an amazing talent and a voice that was out-of-this-world. This film celebrates all of this with clips from some of her singles as well as her amazing Super bowl appearance. It was arguably this and the success of the film, The Bodyguard which catapulted her into the fame stratosphere. It’s exciting stuff but there were also some dark moments. It is incredibly sad to see that Whitney was booed at the Soul Train awards because some of her peers felt she was being “too white” by turning to pop music and leaving Gospel behind. Whitney was also financially exploited by some of her family members.

This film includes allegations that Whitney and her brother were abused by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick (the sister of Dionne Warwick). Whitney’s drug-taking and drinking are also covered. A clip is shown from a comeback tour where she sounds terrible and there are other snippets where it is obvious that she is losing the battle with her demons and addictions. It is tragic because this would culminate in her premature death at the Beverly Hilton at the age of 48. And if that wasn’t sad enough in and of itself, Houston and Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina would die in similar circumstances several years later.

This film packs a lot into its two-hour runtime. That said, there are still some things that are unknowable because some important people in Houston’s life have passed. Another big omission is Whitney’s long-time friend and alleged lover, Robyn Crawford because she declined to be interviewed. Macdonald certainly does the best with what he managed to compile but you get the sense that some of Houston’s life will remain a mystery.

Whitney is a great primer to the talented artist whose flame burned bright but one who also was gone too soon. It’s a documentary film that can be enjoyed by fans and non-fans, including those acquainted with her story. Whitney strips back the veil of fame and offers an intimate portrait of the genius lady with the soulful voice and is both a love letter celebrating her immense talents while also bemoaning her premature demise. Extraordinary.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Whitney releases in Australian cinemas Thursday, 26th July 2018