What is left to say about the spectacular rise and agonizing fall of Whitney Houston, whose drug-fueled decline played out in such full public view that it's hard to imagine any biopic rising above tabloid cliché? Give or take a few new tidbits about the pop superstar's childhood scars and fluid sexuality, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald's absorbing documentary Whitney doesn't break with the sad blueprint that frames rock docs by the handful.
How could it? Whitney's path to ruin plays out like so many others', but it tacks eerily close to the one traced in Asif Kapadia's 2015 Amy. Like her British counterpart, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston was a charismatic, terrifyingly fragile soul who came from a close but troubled family. In adulthood, she chose the wrong man to cling to like a limpet when her career eclipsed his and he took it badly. (Yes, Bobby Brown shows up on camera to insist that drugs had nothing to do with his former wife's life or her death.) She struggled with, but mostly denied and indulged her drug habit until it was too late. Like Winehouse, too, she succumbed just when, having hit rock bottom, it seemed she had finally gotten her life back together.
Macdonald's film, however, does go deeper and more nuanced on things we mostly already know. A seasoned craftsman who tackled the checkered life of Bob Marley with his 2012 Marley and won an Oscar in for his 1999 doc One Day in September, Macdonald has dramatic flair to burn and a flashy way with montage that keeps faith with Houston's enormous public persona. But Whitney is primarily a domestic drama enriched by the director's more or less open access to the late singer's estate. (The estate executor, Patricia Houston, is also executive producer of Whitney.) Without slighting the love and support Houston got from her cousin Dionne Warwick, from family friends and her devoted, psychologically astute assistant Mary Jones, Macdonald zeroes in on the lethal brew of parental ambition and emotional neglect that destabilized Whitney and the brothers who squired her around her tours — while keeping her stocked up with cocaine and worse.
Their father, who was largely absent from Houston's early life and leeched off her later wealth, had a lot to answer for. He's no longer around to defend himself. But Whitney's mother, Emily "Cissy" Houston, is, though her body language screams her discomfort. Squeezed into a pew in a church near where the family lived, the guarded, taciturn Cissy looks as though she'd rather be anywhere but here. To Macdonald's quizzing about her daughter's early years she responds in clipped monosyllables. No wonder: Cissy, a singer herself who never achieved the fame and fortune her daughter won, took her share of blame as the stage mother whose hard-driving ambition helped shape Houston's frail psyche.
And her success. Between the lines the movie also makes clear that Whitney, a shy, often bullied child, would never have become the superstar she did without her pushy parent. And for all the domestic sturm und drang, it's the blossoming of Houston's musical sensibilities that most engages in the film. Record producer Clive Davis and others who shaped her career guide us through the influences, black and white, that made Houston at once an innovator who fused gospel and soul with mainstream pop (the Rev. Al Sharpton pronounced her a traitor to black culture and called for a boycott) and a unifier whose feline beauty and fiercely radiant stage presence brought together audiences across class, race, and gender lines.
Which is why the highlights of Whitney come not in the rehash of family friction but in Macdonald's placement of well-known performance footage that shows off Houston's power to connect. Of course, there's her rendition of the national anthem at sporting events, a joyously bridge-building interpretation that echoed so much further than the stands. But she made magic out of her signature song, "I Will Always Love You," first sung in the pretty terrible, incredibly popular 1992 movie The Bodyguard, in which Houston essentially played herself opposite Kevin Costner. Like that movie, the song is loaded to the gills with schmaltz. But context is all: Houston sang it again with thrilling resonance to ecstatic, multi-ethnic crowds of South Africans right after the fall of apartheid. Regal in a shimmering gown and golden turban, Houston brought such grace, passion, and dignified sense of occasion to a song that, left to its own devices, is a big ball of cheese, that she transformed it into an anthem of reconciliation for a nation newly sprung from vicious racial segregation. That — and not the coke-addled ruin Houston later became or her pitiful 2012 death at 48 in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub — is all we need to remember her by.