Like the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, which tells the story of a prodigiously talented woman lost in life to a lifestyle that she couldn’t or didn’t want to control, “Whitney” is a study of a very public downfall.
Director Kevin Macdonald is tasked with telling the all-too-common story of the rise-and-fall of an icon. The details will be familiar to anyone alive and reading the tabloids when Whitney Houston, the preeminent singer of her era, flamed out in spectacular fashion, dying at age 48 after years of well-documented erratic behaviour.
“Whitney” tells the story, from good to bad to worse, with a dose of empathy. From her youth, the daughter of musical legend Cissy Houston and a dodgy official in the Newark government, as a bullied girl with a beautiful voice to a superstar who became the only artist to have seven consecutive U.S. number one singles, Macdonald sets the stage with dozens of interviews with the singer’s family, friends and associates. He emphasizes the chasm between Houston’s public girl-next-door image with her considerably more wild private life.
Career highlights are showcased, including her stirring version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 and her blockbuster version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” which remains the best-selling single by a female artist in music history, but it is the personal side that intrigues. Interviews reveal blockbuster allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of cousin Dee Dee Warwick, early drug use with brother Michael and half-brother Gary Garland and a troubled financial history with her father. It’s the kind of toxic stew that tabloid stories are made of but instead of exploiting Houston, Macdonald digs deep to tell the story, presenting both a biography and a cautionary tale of excess.