Review: Whitney

Score: B+

Director: Kevin MacDonald

Cast: Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Gary Garland, Michael Houston

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rated: R

The rise and fall of Whitney Houston is one of the most tragic stories in the history of popular music. Already a star in her early 20s, she became the best-selling female solo artist ever at the time, hitting her peak in the early '90s as the star and soundtrack anchor of The Bodyguard. But personal turmoil, a difficult marriage to singer Bobby Brown, and a serious drug problem caused her to spiral, with addiction eventually taking her life in 2012. The conventional wisdom is that this bright, innocent star was led astray by Bobby, but Whitney pulls back to show that drug use, distrust and co-dependency were long part of her life before she ever met the former New Edition star.

Directed by Oscar winner Kevin MacDonald, Whitney isn't afraid to push into the dark history of the Houston family, which hides secrets that are tragic, but sadly all too common: infidelity, abuse and squabbling over money.

But the film isn't merely a chronicle of misery. The first half does focus on Whitney the entertainer, who was no ordinary pop star. Many interviewees refer to her as the greatest female vocalist of all time, and it's not hyperbole. Her debut album, one of the biggest albums ever, remains one of the best pop records of all time. Her incredible voice separated her from the rest of the pack, which focused more on image and production. (One scene of home video shows Whitney and her mother Cissy going in on Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul.)

Still, Whitney had a fraught relationship with her fans. Her later albums drifted away from R&B and into pop, leading to her getting booed at the Soul Train Awards in 1989 for "being too white." But MacDonald flips this in the next scene with Houston's iconic performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV. Even today, some African-Americans have (understandably) complicated feelings about the national anthem, but her performance inspired Americans of all races and ethnicities. The film complicates it further still, by contrasting the patriotic images with footage from the 1967 riots in Whitney's hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

While it was drug use that killed Whitney, the film makes it clear that her undoing was that her closest friends were also her biggest enablers. Her brother Michael admits he was the one who introduced her to marijuana and cocaine on her 16th birthday. Her ex-husband Bobby Brown refuses to talk about it, while the head of the record label during her heaviest drug use (L.A. Reid) tries to get us to believe he had no idea there was any at all. The tragedy is magnified since this impacted Whitney and Bobby's daughter Bobbi, who died in a similar manner to her mother three years later. The only living confidant not interviewed here is Robyn Crawford, who family confirms was more than a friend, but also one of the few to call Whitney out on her addictions, which led to a serious falling out.

While not every flourish works – montages conflating Whitney’s success with America’s success and her decline with America’s decline feels a little clumsy – this is another strong documentary in a year full of them. It's the opposite of Won't You Be Neighbor? You won't be walking out feeling optimistic, but it will make you want to celebrate Whitney's music.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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