Whitney documentary review: an 80s icon contemplated, venerated, mourned

Whitney green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Deeply moving, truly tragic; a biography with a keenly journalistic but hugely sympathetic eye. Powerful compassion and a get-up-and-dance deployment of Houston’s music may well bring her a new generation of fans.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about real women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

If you’ve forgotten how ubiquitous winsome Whitney Houston and her infectiously bubbly music was in the 1980s — or if you were born too late to have experienced the phenomenon of her firsthand — acclaimed British filmmaker Kevin Macdonald is here to remind you as Whitney opens with montages of iconic 80sness: The space shuttle. Ronald Reagan. Max Headroom. MTV. Apple. And Whitney Houston. She had a voice like no one had heard before, a wholesome charm, and an upbeat style, all of which helped make her “the first black America’s sweetheart” and the undisputed “Queen of Pop” from the mid 80s through the 90s. Yet she was dead, aged only 48, by 2012, her body ravaged by years of drug and alcohol abuse that appears from a distance to be completely at odds with her choir-girl image.

Bright, bubbly, and bouncy: the voice of Reagan-era “morning in America.”
Bright, bubbly, and bouncy: the voice of Reagan-era “morning in America.”

Here, Macdonald (Black Sea) looks back at Houston’s life and work with a deeply moving, truly tragic documentary biography, one with a keenly journalistic but hugely sympathetic eye. He talks to family, friends, and colleagues to paint a classically epic portrait of fame and celebrity, talent and demons… one we’re all too familiar with, yet one that rarely features a woman at its center, and an African-American woman almost never. Macdonald digs up potentially sensational tidbits about Houston’s childhood and the secrets of her adult life that may help explain why, as someone here says sadly, “deep down she was a girl in pain.” Yet he handles them with grace and a literary elegance as he also obliquely explores the dichotomy between the public face a child and a family — any child, any family — can show the world with the harsh truths about what really happens behind closed doors; the “idyllic childhood” one family friend says Houston enjoyed may have been a false front, we see.

Always, though, Macdonald maintains a dignity on behalf of his subject that lends a determined poignance to her story. That powerful compassion combined with a get-up-and-dance deployment of her music may well bring her a new generation of fans. And rightly so.

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