There were always two Whitney Houstons, something new documentary Whitney makes perfectly clear. There was the pristine-voiced, sanitized for mass consumption performer Whitney, who became a pop sensation in the 80s. And then there was “Nippy,” as her family and friends called her, who was just a black kid from a New Jersey ghetto. Whitney was a poised and gracious diva. Nippy was the chainsmoking woman in the middle of the massive industrial complex that was the Houston machine, one that employed a large number of friends and family. And even though the tragic end that befell Houston is well known, the documentary is an honest and at times uncomfortable review that offers a stark indictment of the life of the once squeaky-clean singer.
Though there are a lot of interviews in the film, everyone from her hair and make-up stylist to her ex-husband Bobby Brown are covered, you get the sense that they only scratched the surface of her story. Mother Cissy, especially, has barely a few moments. And while some of her family members tout her “idyllic” childhood, there are other revelations that suggest it was less so. It’s an interesting look back. Houston clearly had a lot of demons she was battling, her drug use is well documented, and the film doesn’t shy away from a warts-and-all approach to her history.
Filmmaker Kevin MacDonald crafts an interesting film. Though heard in voice-over, it feels surprisingly long before we actually get to any archival interview footage of Houston herself, the myth and legend is placed up front first. Once we do peel back the curtain, I don’t know if there’s any scene where Houston isn’t smoking, a somewhat surprising vice for someone whose career was built on her voice. The performance and clips chosen are all picked wisely, a great highlight is the use of the vocals-only track of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and the final closing performance of “I Have Nothing.” And despite a mostly chronological narrative, some revelations of Houston’s childhood are saved for the last act of the movie. Visually, different time periods are marked by cultural touch points, quick flashes of political leaders, icons, and zeitgeist moments so quintessentially 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond.
What happened to Houston was tragic, and it’s not surprising how influential her family was in some of her choices. It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear from Robyn Crawford, Houston’s long-time friend who was one of the few that seemed to put Houston the person in front of Whitney the star, but she’s certainly one of the more interesting characters in the entourage.
Whitney, while not completely surprising, is an unflinching look at the rise and fall of a legend and it was done with obvious respect for Whitney the superstar, but also for the lost soul that was Nippy.
My Grade – A-