Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Aretha Franklin, Kevin Costner
Watch Whitney online in the UK: Amazon Prime Video / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
It’s a wonder to think that, as of 2018, nobody has yet made a biopic of Whitney Houston. An astonishingly talented singer whose star blazed brightly before fading suddenly and sadly, she was a sensation of both song and screen, a movie star and a pop star wrapped into one. She was, in short, the real deal. If the lack of a dramatised life story is a surprise, though, less of a surprise is that two documentaries within a year have both sought to bring it to the screen.
Whitney, which arrives after Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me?, promises to tell us the untold truth for the first time about her, and it’s a claim that only emphasises the key shortcoming of both: the lack of knowing her full story. Director Kevin Macdonald, unlike Broomfield, has official cooperation from Houston’s estate, which means he has access to more videos of Houston’s home life and professional career, and more interviews with family and friends.
And so we hear (again) of Whitney’s rise from singing in a church choir to being snapped up by Arista Records’ Clive Davis and becoming a chart-topping sensation. Macdonald captures her rise up those charts with a stylish montage, and stitches together clips of her singing with contemporary news archives, sharply distilling her importance, culturally and socially, culminating in her landmark performance of The Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl.
But while we’re encouraged to admire at just how music-heavy her home life was – from her mother, Cissy, also a talented vocalist, to cousin Dionne Warwick – you get the impression that Macdonald isn’t all that passionate about dissecting her music. Sure enough, it’s only halfway through that he drops his film’s primary reveal – an unexpected piece of information relating to her other cousin, Dee Dee Warwick. It’s a major discovery, one that was teased from a passing comment made by Houston in an interview, in an impressive piece of research.
Even then, though, Macdonald doesn’t really follow up on this plot point, partly, you suspect, because he’s hamstrung by the estate that’s given him such extensive access; Whitney’s family members are, quite simply, very reticent to talk about certain aspects of Whitney’s life. Bobby Brown is surprisingly unenlightening as a participant, while others skirt over issues of drugs or abuse. The mooted relationship between Whitney and close friend Robyn Crawford, meanwhile, is oddly omitted altogether.
Two-thirds of the way through, Macdonald delves into the striking decision by Houston and her team to change The Star Spangled Banner from three beats in a bar to four, giving her extra time and space to inject her own personality and style into the anthem, and adding a touch of jazz and gospel to a tune that couldn’t be further removed from either. If only the same attention to detail were applied to other aspects of Whitney’s life. This is a slickly assembled portrait of a fascinating artist, but one that, despite taking a different approach to Broomfield’s counterpart, still only feels like it’s scratched the surface. Maybe we need that biopic after all.
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