There today is no singer like a young Whitney Houston. Beyoncé, Adele, Lady Gaga — maybe on their best days, they come close to matching the voice, the radiance, the potential of early Whitney. But not every day.
Those highest highs, and the vast gap down to her lowest lows, are a big part of what make Whitney, the unflinching new documentary about her life by Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), so compelling.
Structurally, it’s more by-the-books than Amy, the Amy Winehouse film from the same production company. You see the incandescent Whitney shine at her church, then even brighter on television — tracks like How Will I Know and a vocals-only I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) are enough to give you chills.
But the film also plunges deeper than Amy, into more harrowing waters than one might expect, given the prominent involvement of Houston’s family and estate. Backstage and home-movie footage of "the real Whitney" — burping, smoking, talking trash about Paula Abdul — takes up 10 minutes, maybe less. You do see her fragile and frustrated, stoned and sweating; you get a voyeuristic look at how far she fell from her incomparable teenage promise.
But Whitney proves even more enlightening about the inner circle that allowed her to get this way. Young Whitney’s limitless talent brought out the worst in her mother (overbearing), father (power-hungry) and brothers (admitted drug enablers). Some interviewees, including mother Cissy Houston, husband Bobby Brown and producer L.A. Reid, sound either contentious or in denial about their roles in Houston’s downfall. Pieced together, the clips reveal a dangerously rickety support system that probably did as much harm as good.
Whitney dutifully covers career highlights like The Bodyguard and her famous Super Bowl XXV national anthem, performed in Tampa, but they are presented more as detours from her career’s long, slow downslide. Instead, the film focuses more on painful topics like her long-rumored (and here, essentially confirmed) sexual relationship with best friend Robyn Crawford; or gutting footage portraying her as an absentee mother to late daughter Bobbi Kristina. And late in the film there is a shocking revelation about her childhood — it has already made headlines, but I won’t spoil it here — that attempts some explanation as to how her life went so very wrong.
But even in the film’s most sobering moments, you can’t erase from your memory the indelible images of 21-year-old Houston beaming, dancing and belting out those still-unmatched vocal runs. It’s enough to make you want to dig out your old copies of her first two albums and remember how, for a time, she seemed like the best singer pop music would ever produce. Whitney makes a compelling case she still is.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.