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Whitney
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by alejandroariera

"Portrait of an Artist Brought Low By Those Who Loved Her"
4 stars

An air of melancholia and sorrow hangs over Kevin Macdonald’s "Whitney," the second documentary in less than a year, after Nick Broomfield’s "Whitney: Can I Be Me," on the rise and tragic fall of the seven-time Grammy winning singer Whitney Houston. We know how this story ends: with her death in a Beverly Hills hotel room bathtub in 2012. We believe we know her story thanks to the hundreds of hours and thousands of words devoted by newspaper tabloids and celebrity magazine and TV shows alike to her hits, her affairs, her engagement and rocky marriage to Bobby Brown, and her addictions. Her story follows the same arc as that of another performer who was equally hounded by the tabloids and the paparazzi: Amy Winehouse, whose life and career were exquisitely and empathetically brought to life by Asif Kapadia in his 2015 documentary "Amy." Like Kapadia, Macdonald wrangles hundreds of hours of footage (a significant amount shot by the singer and her relatives) and interviews with family members (who granted the director unprecedented access), friends, music producers and personal assistants to paint the most complete portrait we have of her so far on the big and small screens.

Context is all and Macdonald —whose previous documentary work includes the thrilling mountain climbing film "Touching the Void" and whose features include "The Last King of Scotland"— provides plenty through a series of montages sprinkled throughout the documentary: the 1967 Newark race riots, 1980s TV commercials and music videos, the different war conflicts of the Reagan and Clinton eras; the Iran-Contra scandal, etc. Whitney, Macdonald makes clear, was a product of the times, of her environment, as well as a contributor to it.

Whitney was born in Newark four years before the riots. Her mother Cissy was a gospel singer who sang backup vocals for the likes of Aretha Franklin and had artistic aspirations of her own; Cissy’s nieces were Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. Whitney’s father, John, was a local community leader beholden to the city’s corrupt political machine. They led a comfortable middle-class life. Nicknamed “Nippy”, Whitney made her singing debut at her church at the age of 12; her vocal training began soon thereafter. Even though she appears as a mostly silent figure —her presence is almost totemic— Cissy’s influence over Whitney is felt all over, especially in those home movies Macdonald and editor Sam Rice-Edwards frequently cut to. Her parents’ separation, caused by equal acts of infidelity and betrayal on both sides, leave their mark on her as well. She leaves home and moves in with best friend, future assistant, lover and safety net Robyn Crawford. Whitney signs with Clive Davis after a bidding war and a star is born, delivering for Davis’ Arista Records seven consecutive number one hits with her first two albums.

More than Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul (whose voice Whitney brutally criticizes at one moment in the documentary), she became the most influential African-American female performer of the time, even her sound was considered to be too white by the African-American community: Al Sharpton mocked her by nicknaming her “Whitey” and she was booed off the 1989 Soul Train Awards, the same ceremony where she met Brown) She had a double consciousness, one of the interviewees acknowledges: Whitney was constantly asking herself who is the real her. Huston not only had to confront these perceptions about her music but her own family’s sexual prejudices against her intimate relationship with Crawford (whose absence as an interview subject speaks louder than words). Crawford provided a quiet, loving, stable oasis to Bobby Brown’s and brothers Michael Houston’s and Jay Garland’s unique brand of toxic masculinity.

Macdonald may have had unlimited access but Whitney is not an exercise in hagiography. The Whitney we meet here is a complex, injured soul with talent to spare and, with the exception of Crawford, no one to truly watch out for her best interests. As Macdonald makes clear in the film’s second half, no one in her inner circle came to her rescue when her addiction grew worse, fearing that if they did so they would be killing the goose that laid all those wonderful golden eggs. Her brothers acknowledge their own drug addiction and how they dragged their sister down with them. When asked about his and Whitney’s drug use, Bobby Brown damns himself by replying, “This is what this documentary isn’t about.” He stops speaking; however, those home movies of him and Whitney provide ample evidence of his influence over her. Their addiction and rocky relationship became fodder for the tabloids, late-night show hosts and sitcoms; that footage now leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

Brown isn’t the only guilty party, however. John Houston not only convinced Whitney to skip rehab but he also skimmed thousands of dollars from her business and later sued her for $100 million. A family member even recalls how Papa Houston had him kiss his pinky ring as if he were the Pope. And then come the allegations, in the final half hour, of a close member of the family sexually abusing Whitney and her siblings when they were kids.

"Whitney" is also a celebration of her talent, her voice and her professionalism. The concert footage and video clips stand as a testimony to her versatility and range, yet the behind the scenes footage of her rehearsals and pre-concert preparation are a revelation. They show us a performer that was as meticulous in the staging of her shows as Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin were. Even if you didn’t care much for her music, you can’t help but feel regret and sadness and wonder “what if?”. What if her brother Michael hadn’t introduced her to drugs? What if she hadn’t met Bobby Brown? What sort of an artist would she have become? How would she have matured? By digging deep and eliciting heartfelt, honest, and tough testimonies from those close to her, by using full advantage of the hundreds of hours of archival footage available, by organizing this content into a cohesive multi-layered story, Macdonald opens up a space to raise those questions. "Whitney" stands along "Amy" as one of the finest pieces of cinematic music journalism.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32227&reviewer=434
originally posted: 07/06/18 00:00:00
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USA
  06-Jul-2018
  DVD: 16-Oct-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  06-Jul-2018
  DVD: 16-Oct-2018


Directed by
  Kevin Macdonald

Written by
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Cast
  (documentary)



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