Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Review: ‘Whitney’ documentary an unflinching look at Whitney Houston’s long downfall

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.

Comments
How Glenn Beck’s rise to power started in Tampa

How Glenn Beck’s rise to power started in Tampa

Glenn Beck is one of America’s most polarizing right-wing figures. Before that, he hosted a talk show in Tampa. As he returns to the Straz Center on Nov. 30, he reflects on the city that created him.
Published: 11/21/18
What’s on stage this week: Florida Orchestra happy hour concerts now free, Benji Brown, Radio Theatre Project

What’s on stage this week: Florida Orchestra happy hour concerts now free, Benji Brown, Radio Theatre Project

The casual Wednesday concerts return for a third year. Comic Benji Brown brings his humor to the Straz.
Published: 11/20/18
Elton John’s farewell tour leads this week’s top Tampa Bay concerts

Elton John’s farewell tour leads this week’s top Tampa Bay concerts

The piano legend says goodbye to the Yellow Brick Road with a show at Amalie Arena. Other big concerts this week: KC and the Sunshine Band, Ghost, Minus the Bear and nothing, nowhere.
Published: 11/20/18
In Clearwater, a historic hologram brings Roy Orbison back to life

In Clearwater, a historic hologram brings Roy Orbison back to life

Tampa Bay’s first hologram concert hit Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday, bringing legendary crooner Roy Orbison back from the dead. Sort of.
Published: 11/20/18
Rolling Stones, Garth Brooks announce stadium concerts in Florida

Rolling Stones, Garth Brooks announce stadium concerts in Florida

The rock and country heavyweights are coming to Miami, Jacksonville and Gainesville.
Published: 11/20/18
SoundBytes: Thomas Rhett, Kimya Dawson, JD McPherson, Jo Koy and more

SoundBytes: Thomas Rhett, Kimya Dawson, JD McPherson, Jo Koy and more

Catch up on today's Tampa Bay concert announcements.
Published: 11/19/18
Violinist Esther Yoo dazzles with Florida Orchestra in Mendelssohn concerto

Violinist Esther Yoo dazzles with Florida Orchestra in Mendelssohn concerto

British influences dominated the Florida Orchestra concert, 'A London Symphony.' A German composer's signature work stole the show.
Published: 11/17/18
‘Hamilton’ ticket sales brought early morning frenzy to the Straz

‘Hamilton’ ticket sales brought early morning frenzy to the Straz

Customers huddled in the dark before 5 a.m. By 8:30, the number had swelled to 675.
Published: 11/16/18
At 24, violinist Esther Yoo is already making a mark in the music world

At 24, violinist Esther Yoo is already making a mark in the music world

She performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London on Wednesday. She solos with the Florida Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
Published: 11/16/18
Review: John Legend kicks off crisp Christmas tour with style at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

Review: John Legend kicks off crisp Christmas tour with style at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

The first of the crooner's holiday concerts opened in Florida on Thursday.
Published: 11/16/18