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Non-Review Review: Whitney

Celebrity documentaries can be tricky.

There are so many forces that pull narratives in so many directions; the attempts by those in the celebrity’s orbit to shift the story in order to favour their account of events, the yearning for a tabloid sensationalism to feed the impulses of the public, the difficulty separating personality from persona, and the fact that deceased celebrities cannot speak for themselves. Whitney has to contend with all of these challenges in its attempts to construct a portrait of one of the most vocal artists of the twentieth century.

Director Kevin MacDonald does a remarkably job in structuring his account of the troubled singer’s life and times, of capturing what it was that made Whitney Houston such a compelling figure for so long in the public consciousness, and the forces that contributed to her rise and her eventual implosion. Working with interviews of friends and family, and drawing from a variety of interviews both public and candid, MacDonald manages to sketch an outline of an intriguing figure and to explore a deeply harrowing story of fame and self-destruction.

Whitney is a deeply moving, sincerely soulful and truly heartbreaking piece of documentary cinema.

The life of Whitney Houston has been explored and discussed almost constantly since her untimely passing over half-a-decade ago. Indeed, this is not even the first major Whitney Houston documentary the past couple of years, beaten to the punch by Whitney: Can I Be Me? However, MacDonald made the canny decision not to rush his documentary. Whitney manages to avoid the sleazy tabloid tone that informed a lot of Can I Be Me?, while also landing a number of key insights of its own.

Indeed, the film seems very carefully structured to earn its big dramatic reveals and its earth-shattering revelations. The first three-quarters of Whitney are a smooth and polish examination of a familiar story, the celebrity rise and fall. What elevates Whitney is the attention to detail and care. MacDonald intuitively understands the power dynamics at play as various forces fight for control of the narrative, and manages to chart his own course through the singer’s early life and career.

MacDonald maintains an impressive sense of balance through the documentary, mostly by front-loading his interviewees’ biases and agenda and by refusing to allow them to guide the direction in which the documentary is going. For example, Gary Garland-Houston’s opinions about Whitney’s best friend (and lover) Robyn Crawford reveal more about Garland-Houston than they do about Crawford. The inclusion of a sequence covering what Bobby Brown refuses to talk about is perhaps more informative than any of the material that he actually wants to discuss.

One of the most compelling aspects of Whitney is how fundamentally unknowable its subject remains. Whitney Houston left a treasure trove of material for archivists, including video diaries from her tour and interviews across thirty years of celebrity. However, Whitney repeatedly suggests that its subject was an enigma, even to the closest people in her lives. The film allows those who worked with her space and time to articulate their own perception of the star, and of the dynamics at play within her life, but Whitney understands that it can ever assemble an outline of the star.

There is an honesty in this, as the camera moves slowly and graceful through the spaces that informed and shaped the singer into an icon; pushing down snowy suburban driveways, sneaking through sleek modernist corridors, searching over upper-class neighbourhoods. Whitney understands that it is highly unlikely to find the “real” Whitney Houston in all of this, even as it understands the urge to keep looking in these places.

Indeed, this honesty makes the documentary all the more moving. Whitney understands it has a better chance of documenting how Whitney Houston spoke to other people than it does in attempting to speak for her. These stories are often personal and heartfelt, with those closest to Houston offering candid and intimate details of their experiences with the singer, but never in a manner that feels exploitative or cynical. Instead, it feels human.

As much as Whitney realises that there is a space missing at the centre of this documentary, it fills that space with a mixture of emotions; warmth, compassion, concern, guilt, shame, horror. It all feels earned and genuine. Even when the documentary makes it clear that certain subjects are attempting to reposition the story to suit their agenda, Whitney creates a sense of pathos and tragedy. As familiar as the beats of this story about fame and exploitation might be, Whitney is truly moving in its portrait of this tragic and talented woman.

The first three-quarters of Whitney are so carefully constructed and rigourously put together that the movie earns its major revelations in the third act. Having charted the live and death of the icon, Whitney returns to its subject’s childhood to reveal a horrific family secret. It could easily seem crass and exploitative, cynical and manipulative. MacDonald walks a very fine line his decision to expose this deeply personal truth to the world through a documentary on the deceased singer’s life and times.

This is a daring movie, particularly in the context of the documentary’s (deservedly) scathing contempt for the way the media capitalised on Whitney Houston’s fall from grace. It would very easy for Whitney to seem hypocritical here, to appear to engage in sensationalist tabloid muckraking designed to generate headlines. MacDonald earns enough goodwill with his studious and meticulous first two-thirds that he gets away with it, that the reveal of this trauma feels like something that deserves to be articulated, instead of feeling merely exploitative.

To be fair, there are moments when Whitney goes a little bit too far. The documentary covers the live and times of Whitney Houston, but moves in fits and starts through her career. Often, when leaping forward in time, Whitney will make the transition through pop culture montages; quickly edited slices of Americana intended to provide the audience with a sense of what was happening in the public consciousness as its subject was wrestling with her own demons.

These montages occasionally struggle to get the balance right, between genuinely important socio-political events in late twentieth-century history and broader pop cultural signifiers. There are points at which these snippets become distracting and hyperstylised, like a version of Reeling in the Years having a nervous breakdown. This is a minor complaint at best. Even allowing for the awkwardness of these interruptions, they do offer informative pieces of contextual information; from the Newark riots to a quick shot of O.J. Simpson putting on the glove.

Like the voice of its subject, Whitney is a powerful and moving piece of work.

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