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Whitney Movie Review

Whitney (2018) movie poster Whitney

Theatrical Release: July 6, 2018 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Kevin Macdonald / Producers: Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn, Lisa Erspamer / Tagline: All the music. All the stories. All the answers.

Notable Interview Subjects: Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Gary Houston, Michael Houston, L.A. Reid, Ellen "Aunt Bae" White, Clive Davis, Alan Jacobs, Mary Jones

 

You need not be a cynic nor a documentary buff to recognize a clear precedent for Whitney. The 2015 film Amy charted the tumultuous rise and fall of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse to both box office success and an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Whitney, from Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), sets out to do the same for Whitney Houston.

While she died seven months after Winehouse, Houston's music career took off while the "Rehab" singer was still in diapers. She shone brighter and much longer than Winehouse ever did and her demons were rarely as obvious and well-documented. When Whitney opens, a barely 20-year-old Houston is quickly on her way to becoming America's sweetheart.

Macdonald takes a heavy-handed approach to convey the darkness underlying the pretty, clean-cut model turned singer who captured the nation's hearts with inspiring and upbeat tunes like "How Will I Know", "The Greatest Love of All", and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)." Houston's bouncy performances are intercut with nostalgic shots of Ronald Reagan and '80s commercials, only to break down and devolve into scenes of race riots from Houston's youth.

The late singer-songwriter Whitney Houston gets the documentary treatment in Kevin Macdonald's "Whitney."

Born in Newark, New Jersey to gospel singer Cissy Houston and her husband John, Whitney is said to have had an idyllic childhood by some, while others recall her being taunted by peers for her light skin and good looks. Trained by her mother, Whitney's rise to chart-topping pop songstress seems inevitable and somewhat effortless. Her standing as a beloved icon would last over a decade, with 1992 blockbuster The Bodyguard cementing her as a movie star and also yielding the biggest hit of her career in "I Will Always Love You."

Things seem to start to go awry for Houston after she marries Bobby Brown, the New Edition singer turned solo artist who cuts a much different image than her. That marriage soon produced a child, whose own short troubled life may be the measure by which Whitney most disappoints. But there are reasons beyond Brown's understandable jealousy and abrasive personality to explain Whitney's unraveling: sexual abuse in her childhood by an aunt, the mixing of business and family which sees her brothers profiting while doing little more than introducing her to drugs, and a strained somewhat romantic relationship with openly gay confidant Robyn Crawford.

Brown is the most notable of the many relevant subjects that Macdonald gets to speak on camera here. He provides the film with its most arresting moment when he refuses to discuss any of the drug use that plagued his wife-turned-ex for the last ten plus years of her life. An unsettling video of the couple very clearly under the influence speaks louder than Brown's silence. As do clips of Houston's infamous 2002 interview by Diane Sawyer and one of the cringeworthy concerts which found the most successful female musical artist in history suddenly in dire straits and unable to generate income.

Whitney is every bit as depressing as you fear it might be with its forthright portrait of immense yet fast-fading talent and success. It is painful to see this riches-to-rags story play out and watch as Houston's surviving relatives and associates
try to make sense of how it all went so wrong in time. Macdonald's film doesn't really shine much new light on Houston's undoing but it reflects on it in a candid and thoughtful fashion, placing a little blame in various directions but not really the singer's own (and really, who would want that?).

The downer nature places this documentary in stark contrast to the heartwarming one that is taking the nation by storm this summer, Morgan Neville's Mr. Rogers celebration Won't You Be My Neighbor? It's strange to think that two such different personalities with some overlapping heydays could yield two very different yet broadly appealing documentaries years after their subjects have both passed on. It's stranger still that the Mr. Rogers one, altogether devoid of scandal and drama, will almost certainly sell more tickets and be more likely to stick around in awards conversations than this.

Whitney does a decent job of celebrating the life of the artist, but that life is so sad that you probably will not find yourself enjoying it.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Won't You Be My Neighbor? The First Purge Uncle Drew First Reformed Ant-Man and the Wasp
Whitney Houston: Sparkle The Princess Diaries & The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Katy Perry: Part of Me Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

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Reviewed July 9, 2018.



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