“You want our blood, but you don’t want our pain,” is how Whitney Houston assessed the public’s interest in superstars in a 1991 interview with Ebony. This was years before her problems with drugs were common knowledge, and decades before her 2012 death from drowning (in which cocaine, per the Los Angeles County coroner’s report, was a contributing factor). Kevin Macdonald’s new, estate-authorized documentary, Whitney, honors Houston’s talent and aforementioned gripe, though not in equal measure. The film contains a staggering amount of pain—it’s almost unrelenting in the last hour. I left the theater rattled. I won’t go as far as to say it left a bad taste in my mouth, as I don’t believe the creative decisions behind such a bleak portrait were made in bad faith, but as a nearly lifelong fan of Houston, I’ve never had a less enjoyable time thinking about her than I did for the two hours I spent screening this film.
Macdonald’s doc is thorough—he interviewed more than 70 subjects, many of them close friends and family of Houston. But anyone who followed Houston’s career closely throughout its duration will spot that it’s also incomplete, and too often what’s left out is in service of sketching a rather simplistic trajectory of Houston’s career that has the shape of a child’s drawing of a mountain: there’s her shot up to fame and then an equally steep crash. It made me wish Macdonald had a longer running time or perhaps the docuseries format to really explore the nuances of Houston’s career.
“It’s not an encyclopedia of Whitney Houston,” Macdonald told me during his movie’s recent press junket at New York’s Whitby Hotel. So for example, there’s no mention of Being Bobby Brown in Whitney (though the film does contain an unidentified outtake from the series in which Houston sings “Saving All My Love for You” practically to herself while sitting at a bar). According to Macdonald, the 2005 reality show has “been dealt with in everything that’s ever been made about Whitney.”
Sure, but so has Houston’s 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, which is again excerpted in Whitney. Sandwiched between clips of associates calling it a “disaster” and recalling wondering “Why are we doing this?” as ABC’s camera was rolling, is the infamous portion of the conversation in which Houston declared, “First of all, let’s get one thing straight: Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight, okay? We don’t do crack. We don’t do crack. Crack is wack.”
That interview has been quoted throughout the years to illustrate what a mess Houston was, but that’s only part of the story. The other part is: she was right. Why on earth would a multimillionaire ever smoke crack when she could buy (and end up, as implied in the documentary, spending a vast amount of her fortune on) the finest cocaine? That’s the thing about Houston. There was a clarity about her even through the haze. Being Bobby Brown was as much about addiction as it was about letting go, particularly of fame. By the time that show was filmed in the mid-’00s, Houston was so tired of her celebrity that she was filmed telling autograph-seeking fans to go away and leave her alone.
“I think what we’ve got to understand that Whitney’s reputation was so tarnished that in a way, the only way was up,” said Macdonald, who admitted he was reluctant when Houston’s former film agent and eventual Whitney executive producer Nile David approached him. “The worst I could do was keep her reputation where it was, but by humanizing her, which is what I wanted to do, you understand someone, you feel for them more, and you forgive them, and you feel more compassion for them.” Prior to working on this movie, Macdonald (who directed The Last King of Scotland, the 2012 Bob Marley doc Marley, and won an Oscar for 1999's One Day in September) was no kind of Whitney stan—he told me that if he liked Houston’s music at all during her heyday, he would have been embarrassed to admit it.
I wonder how accurate his assessment of Houston’s reputation was, though. Hadn’t Houston’s death forced a public reevaluation of her life? When she died decades after her prime, didn’t a nation mourn just as hard as it would have if she’d died while she was still in perfect voice, still cranking out chart-topping hits? Maybe I saw things as I wanted while grieving her death (I’ve never been more affected by a celebrity’s passing; I simply adored Whitney through it all), but it seems to me that the narrative Macdonald and the estate that commissioned him were seeking to correct had largely been corrected. Whitney Houston’s death largely sobered up those who thought she was a joke.
What wasn’t corrected by obits and reminiscing was the rather blunt idea that the second half of Houston’s career was a nonstop disaster—an idea reified by Whitney. The last 15 years of Houston’s life were fraught, but not without their triumphs. There was her solid 1998 album, My Love Is Your Love, which is virtually glossed over in the doc (though a few seconds of the title hit plays), and then her well-received 2009 album, I Look to You, which goes unmentioned. It yielded a disastrous tour, which the doc includes, but also truly poignant moments in which Houston’s voice could be viewed not as a tragically damaged instrument, but as a document of the hardship she’d faced. Transferring one’s life so unmistakably to song is the essence of soul. Never, I believe, did Houston do that more movingly than when she performed “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” on Oprah in 1999, another moment left out of Whitney.
Though Whitney is crammed with Houston’s music, not much time is spent on her actually process or relationship to it, aside from some footage shot in recording studios and some other of her arranging backup singers during tour rehearsals. Her ascent to pop superstardom is told in rapid-cut montage, and the section of the film about her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl, inspired by Cinque Henderson’s New Yorker piece on the subject, is more focused on the rearrangement of the song by Houston’s former musical director, Rickey Minor, than Houston’s contribution.
“Her creative process wasn’t generally that interesting,” said Macdonald. “Because she was kind of a genius, she would just show up and do it like she did with ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’” If magic were explicable, it wouldn’t be magic, and Whitney Houston at her best, was pure magic. But it is nonetheless frustrating that so little time is spent on interrogating Houston’s gift in Whitney. Did she like her own songs? When her music transitioned into more rhythmically inclined, decidedly R&B territory starting with I’m Your Baby Tonight (supposedly in direct response to criticism that her early work was too white-sounding), was she happier? At the very least, a deep dive into her creative process might help elucidate Houston’s apathy toward making music during (at least) the last 10 years of her life. Did singing come so naturally to her that she took it for granted, in the same way she came to regard fame? I’ve long held that Whitney Houston’s eventual disillusionment with being one of the most popular, talented humans on the planet is proof that people can get used to anything if it sticks with them long enough.
Macdonald’s doc maintains that unlike Houston’s career, Houston’s personal life was consistently fraught. We hear about her trauma resulting from her parents’ divorce and her early dabbling with drugs with her brother Michael. Her half-brother Gary Houston (né Garland) calls Houston’s former manager/assistant/best friend Robyn Crawford “an opportunist,” “a nobody,” “evil,” and “wicked,” adding, “I knew she was a lesbian…I knew what she was.”
“Leaving that in there is indicating to the audience how difficult it must have been for Robyn and Whitney at that time for them to be together in the face of that kind of disapproval,” said Macdonald, adding that Gary Houston’s resentment also stems from the considerable amount of sway Crawford had over Houston. Macdonald, by the way, is convinced that the rumors of a Houston-Crawford romance were true via his research. He declined to specify what exactly these were beyond “documents and letters and things.” He also said that, contrary to popular belief, Houston and Crawford broke up “fairly early” in Houston’s career but remained close for years after. Perhaps we’ll get further clarification on this soon—the press notes for Whitney state that Crawford, who after months of negotiations declined to be interviewed for the doc, is working on a book.
And then there’s the bombshell that made the news rounds as soon as Whitney premiered at Cannes in May—the allegation made by several interview subjects, including Houston’s former assistant Mary Jones and sister-in-law/former manager/Whitney executive producer Pat Houston, that Whitney Houston had been molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne) during her childhood. This is revealed during Whitney’s last half hour. Macdonald told me that he didn’t include this information in the beginning of the film, which concerns Houston’s Newark upbringing/family life/church background, because he did not want Whitney to be viewed as a movie about child abuse. (Though the amount of coverage this claim received in advance of the wide release of Whitney undoubtedly colored perception to be just that to the segment of the film’s audience that keeps up with pop-culture news.)
“I wanted the movie to feel like an investigation,” Macdonald elaborated. “I wanted the audience to feel like it was for me in making it in that this wasn’t an easy story to unravel...The end of the journey for me in making the film was discovering this piece of information, which I discovered very, very late on in the process. I had suspected there was something like this from maybe halfway through the process, but the final interview which talked about it in detail with Mary Jones, Whitney’s assistant, happened two weeks before I locked the cut, so really way late on. It felt like that’s part of the process, part of the understanding.”
The analysis, though, is largely handled by Jones, who while close to Houston, does not seem to have any credentials of expertise in child development. When she says the abuse made Houston question “her sexual preference and I think that’s why she really wanted a family—a husband, children—to make her feel that this is what’s supposed to happen,” it sounds plausible and is presented as fact when it should really be taken with a grain of salt, since we’re not hearing it from Houston directly. The same goes for musical director Rickey Minor’s assertion that Houston was sexually “fluid” during the segment of the film concerning her relationship with Crawford. Was she? Did she identify that way, or are we retrospectively drawing conclusions based on one relationship? In its attempt to clarify while often taking an authoritative tone, Whitney often merely provokes more questions than providing definitive answers.
There’s also the frankly bizarre decision to portray events of Houston’s life out of order—we see the birth of Bobbi-Kristina Brown, then the section on “The Star Spangled Banner,” and then The Bodyguard. Bobbi-Kristina was born after the release of The Bodyguard (Houston was visibly pregnant with her daughter in the “I’m Every Woman” video). Asking Macdonald about this decision yielded little clarity.
“There was no nefarious implication in that,” he said. “What I was trying to do was sort of say that, I suppose, this was a happy, happy time. To me that’s the peak of her career and her personal happiness. She has a child, she sings ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ which makes her the most beloved woman in America, she changes forever the way that song is understood. Then she’s in The Bodyguard. [Her character] has this incredibly impactful interracial relationship. She goes on tour with that. She’s literally the biggest star in the world at that stage. Having Bobbi-Kristina as part of that maybe makes it part of the joyful part of her life.”
The subjective nature of such decisions should remind us of the scarcity of the definitive document—necessarily omitted for time and other reasons are details and whole untold sides of various stories. Whitney is one way to tell the story of Houston’s life; last year’s Nick Broomfield/Rudi Dolezal doc, Can I Be Me, which I think got at some complicated nuances of Houston’s late career much better than Whitney does, is yet another. Houston’s story is so unbelievable, her talent so unfathomable that she left behind a trove of material to be dissected. That process certainly should not stop here, with Whitney.
“I think that’s the tension inherent in documentaries, isn’t it?” said Macdonald. “If I left everything in and put everything in chronological order and very literally, you would have a very boring and very long film and so you’re trying to shape it into a story that works without lying. There’s a conflict always between the informational part of a film, then your research—which there’s a lot of in this—the journalist aspect of it, and the storytelling.”
Subjectivity, in fact, is the way of the world, which Macdonald illustrated by considering my process for writing this very article:
“Even you as a journalist, that’s what you face everyday. I say all this shit and you’ve got to make a story out of it with a beginning and middle and end.”
Whitney is in theaters today, July 6.