Whitney Houston is not an enigma. Her life unfolded in front of us. I knew what was going on with her as a kid from osmosis, mostly at the supermarket, by seeing the absurd tabloids yelling in big fonts about her addiction, her relationships, and whatever else was wrong now. As much as anyone, her descent was tragically public. We knew how bad it had gotten because it was exactly how it looked.
When the new documentary, Whitney, props her career up as a kind of façade, then we also believe that. Yes, we can see how she was manufactured in the Raegan era to be as loud and as decadent as our culture was. Pop can only hope to capture the zeitgeist of its time. Houston’s music was like that too: extremist, and soaring above commonality, into new heights of soul and dance.
The picture opens with these mixed signals – her famed “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” plays against a backdrop of MTV glitter subverted with American war propaganda. We think, “oh boy, this is going to be a long day at the theater.” It certainly will be.
Houston was a manufactured product from a talented family of singers. Her mom had done backup singing for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Elvis. Her extended family was an installed choir singing the soul of their Newark, New Jersey origins. They had clout because their voices did. This is the world she was born into – affectionately called Nippy – because that’s the kind of baby she was. Then the film contrasts that image with how she was built up by producers – as someone inauthentic and prepackaged – which is all true. She had a stunning voice, but she was also sold and exploited at every turn.
The voice of this documentary belongs primarily to her abusers. Last year we received an unauthorized Whitney documentary – Can I Be Me – that functions as a sympathetic celebration of her life. This year we’re treated to a probing personal inventory of everything destabilizing and heart-wrenching in her life. Her family gives mixed accounts, acknowledging new revelations about possible sexual abuse (and then disgustingly writing them off as a reason she might’ve been bi-curious). Then her infamous ex-husband Bobbie Brown shows up. He avoids any pertinent discussion, but in doing so cuts closer to what we’re after. “I’m not here to talk about the drugs,” he says. “The drugs weren’t her life.”
The director here is mostly interested in chaos and disorder and doesn’t cling to these moments that get to what Whitney was about. Instead, it’s a movie about her illnesses and the personal failings of her inner-circle – everyone who has been socially blamed for her death. None of that is the thing. This is what’s frustrating in a documentary that spends so much time sulking in the sorrow of a loss we already know. It wants to be one of these prestige murder investigations or something journalistically richer than the story of a musician.
While I didn’t come into my showing a fan, I left with an even more brittle and fractured appreciation. There a few moments where Whitney finds its subject uniting the masses. She was one of the last moments of pop culture, where everyone had been listening to the same thing before we all found our niches and dug into more personally fulfilling music. That is not to discredit some of her incredible work in the music industry. An especially prescient and lovely section has a producer explaining how she took the Star Spangled Banner from a 3/4 to a 4/4 signature, creating a wonderful gospel tradition in the process.
This is one epiphany shrouded in what mostly feels like a socially hurtful documentary. There are greater documentaries about wounded artists – Amy on Amy Winehouse is a great example of the work that could be done. And this is a hot summer for documentaries with Won’t You Be My Neighbor, RBG, and Three Identical Strangers rounding out the better options at cinemas. Of course, if you must know, then Whitney will tell you; just like those unavoidable tabloids screaming at you in the supermarket, its truths are unavoidable and bad for the soul.
I left the theater feeling slightly disturbed like we’ve eaten our celebrities alive and are dancing on their corpses. It’s an ugly way to go about a documentary, I think, and when the summer has better options, there’s no need to sit through this. It only briefly reflects the artist on a personal level, never allowing her voice as her own definition, and that’s a pity when you’re working with such a big voice.