On the heels of Nick Broomfield’s effort last year, Kevin MacDonald’s official documentary on Whitney Houston is just as unsurprisingly moving and tragic. But a shocking allegation of sexual abuse laid against Dee Dee Warwick trumps the previously known traumas. The revelation is carefully set up, even if it’s clumsily used to theorise Whitney’s descent into child neglect and drug abuse.
Whitney’s life is neatly presented and conventionally handled, almost to a fault. The family’s participation in the film offers more curiosity than insight, as every member attempts to form the singer’s legacy. Her “disciplinarian” mother appears fleetingly at the beginning, and we learn more from her later omission than from her time on screen. Bobby Brown makes a perfunctory appearance, unwilling to discuss the drug habit he had encouraged. He appears to be insecure, useless and odious. We draw our own conclusions on his poisonous influence.
The brothers are more forthcoming, especially as one provides the major disclosure, but assistants and bodyguards provide the most personal, perceptive comments. They reveal the entrenched homophobia and internal battles that forced out Whitney’s true confidante and presumed lover. They reveal the nature of her father’s lust for money, her daughter’s dysfunctional childhood and Bobby’s manic sense of inferiority. A member of her security team is now perversely a psychoanalyst, and from his performative cameo one can figure the reels of speculative nonsense currently on the cutting room floor.
Some of it doesn’t work. Integrated references to various historical contexts are half-baked and unexplored. These clips of suffering flash onto the screen. Bad things happened in the world during Whitney’s lifetime. OK, what is the relevance? And given the authorised access, the talking heads are hardly fit to hold forth on geopolitical disasters.
Asif Kapadia’s Amy better reconciled the benefits of home footage with the costs of blowhard intrusions. But the glimpses of Whitney’s talent remain euphoric and MacDonald depicts her demise mournfully, if a little voyeuristically, returning to the fateful bathroom. Most galling is the new information: for such a publicly mediated tragedy, the Warwick accusation was until now forced into the dark. It’s heartbreaking.
Whitney is released in select cinemas on 6th July 2018.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Whitney here: