I really do not like to throw down terms like “greatest of all time,” “once in a generation talent,” or anything of its ilk very much, as these superlatives are nothing short of overused in the current vernacular. One thing that is very hard to debate that one of the people in my lifetime that any of these terms can be linked to is Whitney Houston. Daughter of Cissy (who sang backup for Elvis amongst others) and cousin of Dionne Warwick (leave the “Psychic Friends” to the side for a minute), she is part of a musical legacy that will last for generations to come. When she passed away on February 11th, 2012 at the age of 48 (the night before that year’s Grammy Awards), it sent shockwaves through America and the world, as a talent that transcended every demographic would be silenced forever. Documentarian and “The Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald has chosen to turn his lens on her story and career with his latest film, simply titled “Whitney”.
At a solid two hours (which is rare for a modern documentary), Macdonald pulls no punches as revelations are brought to light, both wonderful and extremely painful in the story of her life from a kid singing in church to the preparation for fame in the music industry, super stardom in film, and a fall from grace that is as gradual as it is heartbreaking. He features interviews with everyone from her mother to former band members, employees, and yes, even Bobby Brown as they discuss their memories of her with truth that can be scathing at times but not to a point where I felt there was any form of malice.
Macdonald doesn’t stop there, with great access to footage that helps compliment his narrative to the point of even a digital remastering of a couple of her videos. The best example I can give here is her work on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” where not only has the video been cleaned up so it doesn’t look like it was taken from someone’s 1986 VHS tape from MTV but also because as it plays, the vocal track is isolated for the first verse and chorus, showcasing Houston’s pure vocal power in a way that gave both myself and the people around me goosebumps. And those goosebumps were not an isolated incident with scenes throughout that had me in pure awe, reminding me of how much of a loss her passing truly was for all of us.
Even as her demons creep up on her and knowing how it would all play out, I was riveted by the way her story was told and ran the gambit of emotions by the time the credits rolled. Even though we all hope that our stories will be remembered by the things people celebrate us for, having this glimpse into the full spectrum of Houston’s life is one that I hope can be seen as a celebration and a cautionary tale. Personally, I would have like to have seen this as a documentary series that could parallel her music career to the personal peaks and valleys a bit more, but this is not to take anything away from this amazing film.