Whitney Houston died just six years ago, in January 2012. In the past eighteen months two British documentary-makers have attempted to capture ‘her’ story for the big screen. Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me came first, a composite of archive footage and audio that made for painful viewing. The later film is this one, made by Kevin Macdonald (best known for the incredible 2003 documentary Touching The Void). It makes for equally painful viewing. Not because it’s poorly made, but for how poorly the subject was treated by those closest to her.
Both Broomfield and Macdonald seem to have come to the same conclusion – that Whitney’s troubled life and tragic death was the result of her family and inner circle. It is they who lead her on the trajectory that caused her so much unhappiness. Though she may have been surrounded by so many all of the time, she was bitterly lonely and isolated. Macdonald appears to have achieved greater access to her family that Broomfield’s documentary, in an interview Macdonald explained that he only decided to make the documentary at their bequest.
It’s an anecdote that feels even more surprising when watching the documentary. That’s because their interviews bring up all manner of repressed secrets, uncomfortable truths, unsettling contradictions and an uneasy acknowledgment of the roles they played in what happened to her. As a result this makes the documentary sad and rather painful watching, in the way that only a combination of brutal honesty and ingrained denial can.
This leads onto the most complicated aspect of both documentaries; that Whitney’s own voice seems to get lost within proceedings. Although we get soundbites and archive footage of Whitney, so much of it feels founded in artifice. Perhaps this is a reflection of how she lived her life, that her thoughts, wants and wishes got lost or ignored. But there’s also the fact both films focus primarily on her personal life – the sex, drugs and tragedy. Her music career and her incredible talent are secondary features.
A prevailing sense of inevitability lingers over the entirety of this documentary; the feeling that, when all is laid bare, no-one should be surprised that Whitney’s life was lived the ended in the way it did. It’s bleak viewing which doesn’t fully serve its subject. In fact it almost undermines and betrays her. All-too familiar scandals and shocking revelations are the things that get explored, not Whitney herself. Whilst it’s impressive that Macdonald was able to get such candid confessions and explore the calamity of complications that made up her life.
But so did her music. And that’s where Whitney and her fans get most ill -served by this documentary.
Dir: Kevin Macdonald
Scr: Kevin Macdonald
Featuring: Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Brown, Merv Griffin, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
Prd: Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, Lisa Erspamer
DOP: Nelson Hume
Music: Adam Wiltzie
Run time: 119 miniutes
On DVD, BLU-RAY and digital download 29th October.