Kevin Macdonald’s near-epic new film, Whitney, gets just how undeniable a cultural force Whitney Houston was in the 1980s. Springing from nowhere (technically New Jersey) with only her talent launching her, she was the pop alternative to the jangly sex symbol trappings of Madonna or the baggage of weirdness surrounding Michael Jackson. Certainly in my own house growing up at the time, her music was everywhere, and today when I hear her songs, I get the same nostalgic fix as when the Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood theme plays. The film recognizes this and uses that rush of sound and images to evoke a time when being an artist with seven consecutive N0. 1 hit singles meant that damn-near everyone in the country knew who you were.
The real test is whether we learn anything new from all this. To his credit, Macdonald tries to answer questions I didn’t even know I had about Houston’s life. It’s his interview subjects and a lack of any clear through-line that eventually tank the narrative before it really gets going. When you have everyone else in the movie — not to mention video evidence — confirming the drug use that was a major part of Houston’s life, but ex-husband Bobby Brown flatly shuts down any questions on the subject with “I’m not here to talk about that,” where do you go from there? There are rumors regarding the singer’s alleged bisexuality that become a major part of the story but are left behind since Robyn Crawford, Houston’s best friend and business partner, and the one person who could speak to that with any real authority, doesn’t take part in the film. Likewise, a pretty stunning late-film revelation regarding another famous singer comes and goes, despite being damning enough that I think the filmmakers might be setting themselves up for a potential slander suit.
The film’s true aim is to rescue Houston’s memory from the circus that clogged up the final years of her life. While it may be true that there are those who only remember the singer as a punchline, this is the film that should stand as the ultimate rebuttal to that. Following Houston from her childhood all the way up to the day she died is a noble effort, but in packing in so much detail, the film falls short of where it could have gone with a little more elbow room. It’s a breathless undertaking, and one that shows the star for the rare talent she was. It’s her absence in the telling of her own story that is felt most strongly. She is now at the mercy of which bits and pieces those in her life choose to remember, which becomes a compelling angle all to itself as the film goes on.
To that point, it’s fair to say that there are those who still stand to gain or lose, depending on how that story gets told and the sense of a dozen unreliable narrators edging for the spotlight is too obvious to ignore. Even so, the piling-up of points of view and the cumulative effect of seeing so much of a single life crammed into two hours can’t derail the film completely. If Whitney’s intention is to show us just how unknowable Whitney Houston really was, it pretty much nails it.