Whitney

 

            There is no suspense in this documentary.  We all know how tragically her life ended.  So the interest has to be in developing the narrative.  And there are few surprises there, either.  But oh, that incredible voice.

            Director Kevin Macdonald has managed to gather just about every still-living person who was part of Whitney Houston's life.  Their commentaries say as much about them as about the central character.  Her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, refuses to talk about drugs, and claims they had nothing to do with her life (she died of a drug overdose).  Cissy Houston, her mother, says that Whitney had an idyllic childhood (though her siblings claimed they were moved around a lot, stayed with different relatives, and even suffered sexual abuse). 

            But there's no denying the musical pedigree.  Cissy Houston was a singer and performer herself, as well as choir director of her Baptist church, where little Whitney grew up singing Gospel songs.  But apparently her mother had an affair with the Pastor, which, among other things, took away Whitney's home congregation as an outlet for her singing.  There were also allegations about her Dad's infidelity, but in any case, they divorced when Whitney was still a teenager.  But her course was already determined.  She says (in archive footage) that she decided at age 13 that she wanted to be a singer.  And by age 16, she was already on the stage, because her incredible talent simply could not be denied.  Oh, and it didn't hurt that she was also beautiful enough to do some modeling work on the side.

            She was still a teenager when she signed the recording contract, and the number one hits just kept coming.  There was some behind-the-scenes drama about who would manage her career---first it was a record producer, then a female friend (implications of bisexuality), then her father, who apparently put everybody in the family on the payroll---road managers, bodyguards, schedule co-ordinators, whatever.  The entourage around the singing star was steadily increasing, even as she began to lose herself in her own stardom.  And then she met singer/rapper Bobby Brown, to whom she was married for 14 tumultuous years. 

            Her starring role in the movie “The Bodyguard” (with Kevin Costner) propelled her to superstar celebrity status, but the drug usage had already begun, as well as the smoking, and the corresponding steady decline in her voice quality.  She would be in and out of rehab, until finally, at age 48, she was found drowned in her hotel bathtub.  A horrific irony is that her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died the same way at age 22.

            Director Macdonald throws in some cultural context scenes, including the Newark Riots, file footage of waving Presidents, and some quick stills of actors/celebrities tied romantically with Whitney.  In a way, it's an old, old, story, about the rapid rise and sudden fall of a star, but few people are gifted with the looks and talent of a young Whitney Houston, which makes her tragic life all the more poignant.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association