Kevin Macdonald reveals scars without tarnishing her iconic status
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
There really isn’t anything remotely “pop” centered in the filmmaking of Kevin Macdonald, the director behind the feature films “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Eagle,” and “How I Live Now” as well as the documentaries “One Day in September” (which earned an Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2000), “Touching the Void,” and “Marley,” the massively daring look at the life, music, and endearing legacy of Bob Marley. Even when Macdonald goes for a more conventional narrative, like the 2009 political thriller “State of Play,” there’s something off-center in the perspective. As a storyteller, the guy longs to explore the shadows, rather than what is plainly available in the bright spotlight at the forefront.
So, what happens when Macdonald takes on the pop icon Whitney Houston in “Whitney,” his latest documentary?
As a music lover who came of age in the 1980s, I wasn’t a fan of Houston’s oeuvre. The sound of those first hits of hers, the ones that cemented her iconic status as a pop juggernaut—the seemingly endless string of consecutive number one hits—was too broad, too bland, too over-produced for my tastes. But I recognized, even then, the power of her voice. That instrument was more than one of a kind; it contained a multitude of feelings and expressions, crossing over from the dark crevices of the soul to the sanctity of the church and a few places most of her audience hadn’t even dared to venture into yet. Looking back, I can say I wish she had been in control of her path enough to have pushed for material worthy of her talent, more choice covers like Al Green used to sprinkle throughout his early albums (think of his interpretation of the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”). She could have owned a host of timeless tunes the way jazz artists create standards.
Macdonald takes advantage of studio wizardry that allows us to separate sequenced tracks, pulling the vocals away from the overworked arrangements and letting the voice speak for itself. And Whitney’s voice does more than “speak”; she backs up the history Macdonald explores, the stories of her upbringing.
We learn about the unfulfilled musical dreams of her mother Cissy Houston who, after years on the road trying to forge a breakout career for herself, laid a foundation for Whitney. She worked her daughter, rode her hard to make sure she would be able to harness the creative wellspring bubbling within her. There is also the behind the scenes hustling of her father, a politician in Newark, NJ, who gamed the system as a means of providing for his family and then imagined that he might be able to do so on a grander scale for Whitney in the music industry. And her brothers lurk in the wings, singing backup and introducing her to the drugs that fuel the darkness just outside the glare of the lights.
Those isolated vocal tracks capture these not-so secret parts of her fame, for the discriminating listener, but it was obvious that a producer like Clive Davis would want to conceal this truth from the record buying public. At that time, there was no way a pop princess could bare this much of her soul to the world.
But now, Macdonald enjoys a measure of freedom to tell more of the tale about Whitney. The film delves into her relationship with Robyn Crawford, her business confidant and rumored lover, who occupied a space coveted by her closest family members and even her eventual husband Bobby Brown. The petty jealousy comes to the fore, but Macdonald fails to dig deeper, to allow Crawford to speak her own truth about the relationship and the times.
We hear so much from Whitney’s family, about their appreciation of her talent, and their connections with her, but I found myself wishing for Crawford’s verse about her role in this pop rollercoaster ride. For “Whitney” to be a definitive exploration, that side has to be admitted into evidence.
Furthering this point, Macdonald reveals a bombshell, concerning a long-buried history of sexual abuse by a same-sex family member during Whitney’s childhood and within moments, veers away from the news, undermining the potential impact. I spent the rest of the movie in a daze, waiting for more details, more reporting and analysis. Here, in this revelation, is a possible explanation for a lifetime of confusion and drug use that shaped this great voice and led to the untimely snuffing out of an eternal flame.
By leaving this breadcrumb so prominently on the trail, Macdonald ensures that “Whitney” will stand as the current definitive version of the Whitney Houston tale, but another installment will rewrite the book on the long-term love and legacy of this pop sensation.