“People think it’s so easy, but it’s not,” Whitney Houston said in a piece of footage in ‘Whitney’ taken backstage at one of her shows. To live her life and have a natural-born talent like Houston’s is a dream. But to say it’s easy to live as an exalted celebrity like her is false.
Houston’s breakout into the spotlight meant that a new cultural icon was born. She became one of the many prominent figures in the 1980s alongside others who defined the decade. However, “Whitney,” directed by Kevin Macdonald, suggests there is value in digging deeper into who Houston was as a person and the motives that lead to her tragic death. For this, the documentary is successful in examining her life and better understanding her death.
“Whitney,” while solely focusing on Houston, features intimate interviews from her family members, such as her mom and her ex-husband Bobby Brown. Additionally, the film includes famous footage of Houston’s iconic performances, such as her cover of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and interviews such as those with Diane Sawyer soon after the media speculated about her addiction to drugs. Similarly, the film also incorporates unseen videos and photos of her in her personal time and backstage during shows.
Through its footage, the film provides viewers with the opportunity to witness who Houston was in her daily life. As a young girl, Houston was a leading gospel singer for her church. Her youthful radiance shines off-screen as much as her foreseeable success. It is through the combination of scenes from Houston’s youth and from her successful stage career that viewers get a greater sense of her cultural significance in the world. These scenes show how wide her outreach was and therefore demonstrate her limitless fanbase.
Both the exclusive interviews and footage work together to create a personal experience with the audience. Through interviews, viewers get to hear the answers to hard-hitting questions from the people who cared about her most. It feels as though with these interviews, viewers can better understand what the truth is with regard to how Houston lived her life. Through the interviews, for instance, viewers learn that Houston’s brothers were the first to introduce her to drugs.
The recognition of Houston’s music and its impact falls short when the film discusses her drug abuse. In the beginning of the film, the splicing of the footage sets viewers’ expectations high to endure a documentary that is refreshing and new. Unfortunately, “Whitney” becomes a repetitious source of information, reiterating news the public has already heard. Houston’s history with drugs is the reality, but the film gives too much space to this aspect of her life rather than to her craft.
As the film comes to an end, there is a brief sense of closure at her death, but not enough. It is not unique to hear about iconic artists passing away before their time. And it is typical for how they died to outweigh their accomplishments. This documentary had the opportunity to provide a colorful record of Houston’s life, but instead it shifts its focus too soon onto her tragedy.
Ultimately, “Whitney” is a well-crafted and well-organized film that aims to celebrate Houston’s legacy while still providing new context on her life. Despite its flaws, the film clearly states that Houston lived a life with a dedicated soul and passion for her work. Even since her passing, Houston still remains a highly respected artist — she and Madonna were the only female artists to hold seven consecutive No. 1 hits in the 1980s. The film’s efforts to pay homage to the late Whitney Houston hit home if only perhaps because of how beloved she is by her fans.
Contact Maybelle Caro at [email protected].