Whitney Houston was the proverbial golden girl. Born into a talented family – her Mother was Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warwick – she was blessed with an almost incandescent beauty and a singing voice that was quite simply thrilling to listen to. Of course she was always going to be a star and it’s little wonder that her version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You is still the biggest selling record by a female artist ever. But her career also followed a depressingly predictable trajectory. A meteoric rise to stardom, following by a rapid descent into drug-fuelled oblivion. Why is it that so many successful pop stars follow that route? Why does having so much inevitably lead them to the feeling that they actually have nothing worth living for?
Of course, the popular opinion is that Whitney was a saint, led astray by her marriage to bad boy singing car crash, Bobby Brown – but what quickly becomes clear from Kevin MacDonald’s astute documentary, Whitney, is that the seeds of her self-destruction were sewn years before her success as a pop star. It was there in the family that closed ranks around her and effectively became her employees, in the pushy mother who groomed her for success and the interfering father who stole vast sums of money from her and eventually ended up suing her to the tune of a hundred million dollars. It was in the two brothers who first introduced her to drugs when she was still just a teenager and it was in the ever-hungry public who demanded everything from her when she was successful and yet voyeuristically relished her dramatic fall from grace. And of course, it was in the tabloids, as ever, waiting in the wings to feed on the misery…
Whitney isn’t an easy watch. At times, it’s downright heartbreaking. MacDonald has opened the film up to be more than just the standard pop star biography. He pulls in found elements that reflect the world over the turbulent years of her fluctuating fortunes, contrasting her sweet girl image with the ugly reality of war and race riots. Unlike Nick Broomfield, who also filmed a Whitney biopic this year, MacDonald has the full cooperation of the singer’s family and what they have to say about her life is sometimes frustrating and more often downright chilling. Towards the end of the film, a shocking accusation is made about a member of the family, one that is quickly backed up by others in the clan, and you begin to appreciate that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.
But Whitney’s talent shines through like a beacon, her superb voice even managing to make her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (at the1991 Super Bowl game) a profoundly moving event. It’s as though her voice encapsulates all the pain she’s been going through for years, making it part of the fabric of her talent. Whitney fans may find this gives them a little more than they actually want to know, but it’s a powerful and affecting film that tells some uncomfortable truths.