They don’t make superstars like Whitney Houston anymore. Much like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Tom Petty, and George Michaels, these were people known for their guarded exteriors and mysterious and eccentric lifestyles. The documentary Whitney attempts to pull back those veils and reveal a singer and human, once exuberant, who was more than her persona.
Indeed, the best portions of Whitney are the found home footage of Houston amongst her family. In fact, the documentary is worth it just to hear a young Houston say, “Paula Abdul ain’t shit.” The footage provides a fascinating behind the scenes image of a woman who had been described as a “Diva.” But not unlike the documentary Amy, we confront a young, innocent, bubbly, and energetic woman. And as we progress, we see and hear the degradation of not only Houston, but also her voice. She morphs from carefree budding superstar to the shambled mess in front of Diane Sawyer.
The main critique of Whitney is it’s surface-level analysis. We find out little of her that we couldn’t have found on Wikipedia or in any tabloid exposé. The documentary comes tantalizingly close, as we find that Houston was booed at the Soul Train Awards, called “Whitey” Whitney, and deeply identified with the black church she was raised in. However, while race is at the documentary’s center (from time–to-time), it’s never more than to document the bullying the singer suffered. This says little of what political thoughts she may have held.
The apolitical image of Houston extends to the rearranging of the Star Spangle Banner, a song that’s claimed to have an adversarial history with Black America. It’s odd that this would be brought up, and that the explanation (unprompted) given as to Houston’s participation was her singing for freedom. Maybe Houston wasn’t very political. Maybe she was just a pop/R&B star. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Whitney appears to pull us into that realm when it says nothing of Houston as a person.
In this case, that’s one of the drawbacks of relying on talking heads with vested interests in protecting the singer. They can only speak toward what’s comfortable for them to talk about. They often withhold, and with great regularity make large assumptions. The most prominent example being Bobbi Brown’s unwillingness to speak about drugs. One gets the sense that more so than usual, director Kevin Macdonald had to pull together patches of perspectives to find some semblance of consistency between each account.
That irregularity is found in both the portrayal of Houston’s adolescence and her relationship with Robyn Crawford. Some portions of the family reminisce that they were the “Cosby’s of Dodge street.” They outwardly seemed to be perfect (how ironic that comparison is). However, we also find that her parents both had affairs and divorced, her mother was a soccer mom grooming her daughter for a singing career, her father was as crooked as the day is long, and that she was sexually molested as a child. Macdonald teases these shadows from this guarded family, a family still protecting the image of a woman they once worked for.
Nevertheless, Macdonald fails in fetching any coherent reason for the animosity toward Houston’s confidant and assumed lover, Robyn Crawford. Houston’s half brother, Gary Houston, refers to Crawford as “evil,” “wicked,” and a “nobody.” Macdonald never pushes Gary, especially as the rest of the family appeared to be fond of Crawford. Actually, many of them praised Crawford as the one person who cared for Houston’s best interests. Macdonald gets one person on the record to say that the family might have been homophobic, but no other reasons are granted. The opportunity and reasoning feels like hedging by Macdonald. It’s also disappointing that Crawford completely drops from the documentary once Bobbi Brown entered into Houston’s life, even though Crawford remained a steady part of the Houston’s inner-circle. Maybe Macdonald could have provided more had Crawford appeared on camera, but even without her presence, it seems like a portion of the picture is missing from those who are involved in the documentary. It feels as though further details might have been expunged.
And while Whitney does make this shadowy figure less elusive, by film’s end, she’s nearly as mysterious as “we” remember her. Maybe that’s how Houston would have wanted it, but it doesn’t provide for the best documentary either.