Sunday 26 May 2019

Whitney film review: 'Kevin McDonald's insightful film lifts the lid on Whitney Houston's troubled and sad life'

4 stars

Every woman: Whitney does a good job of giving the viewer some insight into who the singer really was. Photo: Getty Images
Every woman: Whitney does a good job of giving the viewer some insight into who the singer really was. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Like the Number 7 bus, you wait six years for a Whitney Houston documentary then two come along at once. Late last year, Nick Broomfield released Can I Be Me, a candid look behind the scenes at the bad habits and hangers-on that ultimately lead to the death of a woman who may have been the most talented soul singer of them all. When I interviewed Broomfield, he mentioned that while he was denied access by Whitney's mother Cissy to the performer's extended family, Kevin Macdonald had been given the Houston seal of approval for his upcoming documentary. Whitney might, therefore, be a sanitised stitch-up.

Not so, as it turns out. Macdonald is a canny operator, and has not allowed the wool to be pulled over his eyes. And while the emphasis of the two documentaries is subtly different, Macdonald has managed to have his cake and eat it in the sense that he talks to Cissy and Bobby Brown and Whitney's brothers without allowing himself to be dragged into their version of events.

By the time Whitney arrived in our record stores in the early 1980s, she'd been repackaged as a sweet and unthreatening popstrel. Her mother had been a successful backing singer, her aunt was Dionne and her cousin was Dee Dee Warwick: an urban myth maintained that Whitney was to the manor born. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

She was mainly raised in Newark, New Jersey, which was riven in her early childhood by the race riots of 1967. Her ambitious father, John Houston, was a mover and shaker, and the family moved away from the tough neighbourhood where Whitney was born. But through her childhood, drugs were everywhere - in Broomfield's film, one of her brothers claimed he first tried heroin when he was 10.

Young Whitney was teased for being too light-skinned, but woe betide the bullies if Cissy got hold of them. The fierce matriarch, a fine singer herself, took her daughter under her wing and nurtured her extraordinary talent, though not always kindly. Whitney sang in church from a young age, honing her vocal clarity, power and range.

Then came that extraordinary 1983 appearance on the Merv Griffin Show when a stunned audience sat slack-jawed as young Whitney lifted the roof off with an extraordinary rendition of 'Home'. She was signed up by Arista Records, and within the year Houston was a big star.

Kevin Macdonald got access to Houston’s family and Bobby Brown
Kevin Macdonald got access to Houston’s family and Bobby Brown

Thanks to the catchy but bland pop songs her record company chose for her, Whitney became a crossover artist to an extent only previously achieved by Michael Jackson. She also provided the tabloids with a never-ending story by marrying bad boy rapper Bobby Brown: he would later be blamed for Whitney's drug abuse, but as we now know, it wasn't that simple.

In Macdonald's film, Cissy glares defiantly at the camera and boasts about her role in creating Whitney, but seems a tad defensive. So does Bobby Brown, who refuses to talk about drugs and claims they were not a big part of Whitney's life. We get less of a sense of who Whitney's long-time friend and possible lover Robyn Crawford was than we did in Broomfield's documentary, but a more rounded portrait of Houston herself.

She seems to have been kind and fun-loving, but surrounded by flunkies and vultures, not least her own father, who embezzled money from her and then tried to sue her after they became estranged. Whitney's personal troubles may also have stemmed from childhood traumas, and in Macdonald's film it's alleged she was repeatedly sexually abused by her cousin, Dee Dee.

To add to her travails, Whitney was turned on by her own community, who childishly considered her a turncoat: she was loudly booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, and the Reverend Al Sharpton cruelly dubbed her 'Whitey Houston'. Sharpton, with staggering hypocrisy, emerged to shed crocodile tears after Whitney's death, which in retrospect seems to have been inevitable. It's a sad story, and Whitney tells it well.

Whitney (15A, 120mins) - 4 stars

Also out this week: Movie reviews: Mary Shelley, The First Purge, Swimming with Men

Films coming soon...

Incredibles 2 (Holly Hunter, Craig T Nelson, Samuel L Jackson, Bob Odenkirk); The Secret of Marrowbone (George McKay, Mia Goth, Anya Taylor-Joy); The Racer and the Jailbird (Matthias Schoenaerts); Lost & Found (Liam Carney, Aoibhin Garrihy).

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