Whitney Houston was undeniably one of the biggest superstars in pop music, and inarguably one of the most talented. With a still-unmatched seven number one hits in a row, she was dazzling at her peak: gorgeous, talented, and embraced by MTV. As if she couldn’t soar any higher, she dipped her toe into Hollywood, acting (and singing) in the hit movie The Bodyguard, and scored another hit so huge that the song’s writer Dolly Parton blessed the song and released it as forever Whitney’s.
But Whitney, in the eyes of the media, was also portrayed a train wreck on a downward spiral after the highest of highs. When she passed away in 2012 (not too long after her peer, and according to this film, friend Michael Jackson), no one could really say they were surprised. What I was hoping from this documentary was a humanizing portrayal and a celebration of her talent. We as the public were left with her horrifically sad ending (followed by the agonizing death of Whitney and Bobby Brown’s daughter), and it seemed something more positive would have been the perfect tribute. Instaed, Whitney goes the expected route, rubbing away the gloss of her upbringing and fame, and finding the grit and the sadness underneath, leading to the inevitable ending.
Filled with talking head interviews, we meet everyone from her songstress mother Cissy Houston (who looks reluctant and broken about appearing), to other members of her family, like her brothers (who dish the dirt that her drug use started before Bobby), to a puffy and tight-lipped Bobby Brown who steers questions to abrupt endings. We hear about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Whitney was a wild child, and Bobby was wilder. But the elephant in the room and the missing link to Whitney’s happiness was her friend/lover Robyn Crawford, who notably is not interviewed. There is enough info, sadly enough, that hints that Robyn was the only one that truly had Whitney’s back, and her leaving was what truly led her astray.
I went into the movie Whitney hoping to be sucked into a world of undeniable raw talent, in the same way the documentary Amy gripped me with interest in a singer I knew little about. Instead, the movie dwells more on the backstory and the tragedy than her singing itself. Having a few people say, “Oh she was so great!” isn’t enough. I wasn’t a fan, so tell me why her singing was so special. The most promising glimpse was the use of the vocal-only track of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, which is quite captivating, only to have it awkwardly edited with news footage of the era. Even her famous singing of the national anthem at the Super Bowl is given short shrift. I’m sure the woman herself would have loved to be remembered for her talent. Instead, we get a checklist of how things went very, very sadly wrong.