WHITNEY – Review – We Are Movie Geeks


WHITNEY – Review

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In a Summer of superheroes and rampaging dinosaurs, a documentary has somehow broken through the noise. The Fall and Winter is the usual release time for serious, somber fare like “docs”, but this quiet film, about a man known for being quiet, has gotten critical raves and has been embraced by film goers (not Marvel box office, but…). I’m talking about the film about Fred Rogers, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?. It’s part of a “sub-genre” of feature docs, one we’ll call the “show biz personality” film profile. There have been several entries in that category exploring the lives of musical performers. And when a career is cut short by tragedy, it gives the film makers a “dramatic hook” to reel in audiences. That was the case three years ago with the compelling feature documentary about jazz/soul songstress Amy Winehouse titled simply AMY. Now comes a look at a life perhaps even more tragic, but also a career rise more meteoric than most, shattering records while gathering records (of gold and platinum). And her tale may just smash some box office doc records, too. This new film tells the story of WHITNEY, the still adored Ms. Houston.

Film maker Kevin Macdonald is quick to establish the “go go”, totally tubular and tacky 1980’s with lots of quick clip montages snipped from cable news, TV commercials, and music videos. Bursting through the MTV clutter is the stunning Whitney, a dazzling doll straight off the shelf of Toys ‘R’ Us (ah,nostalgia), with an infectious smile and the clear, smooth voice of an angel. After the florescent pink barrage, Macdonald then gets down to his investigation. He takes us on a tour of her hometown of Newark, speaks with some siblings, profiles the patriarch, political hustler John Houston, then it’s on to the formative place that first showcased Whitney’s vocal gifts: New Hope Baptist Church. Inside Macdonald presents the halting entrance of the Houston matriarch, Cissy, battered by life, yet full of quiet dignity and strength.. We’re given a history of her career, as an acclaimed “in demand” back-up singer whose solo efforts stalled. She tells of her efforts to guide Whitney, first by sending her to a private Catholic high school, then training her (and she was a tough coach) to be a professional singer. From the chorus and back-up to solo stints at supper clubs, Whitney honed her performance skills, aided by a short time as a professional print model. Her next mentor is interviewed, Clive Davis, the man who could see “the dream”, plus we get that fateful 1983 appearance on TV’s “The Merv Griffin Show” where Clive presented her to a national audience. The albums and concerts follow, along with controversy (Al Sharpton derided her as “Whitey Houston”), nepotism (“you were guaranteed a job on the tour if your last name was Houston”), and the spectre of drug use (a monster biding its time). The 80’s give way to the 90’s and the iconic Super Bowl rendition of the National Anthem (making it a top 20 hit) and her starring role in the motion picture THE BODYGUARD (Kevin Costner still sings her praises). Soon after begins the professional and personal relationship with R ‘n’ B “bad boy” Bobby Brown whom she marries and births a daughter, Bobby Christina. But the sunny days soon turn dark (shown with lots of outtakes from their “reality” TV shows) as the drug addiction demon finally begins to devour”America’s pop sweetheart”.

No ground braking new techniques are introduced in this rags to riches to ruin story. Macdonald goes to the 80’s kitsch well once too often with repeated montages to break up the “talking head” interviews. Still, some are most revealing. One family member disputes the notion that Whitney went to Catholic high school to escape the constant taunts and threats from public school classmates (“Her childhood was idyllic”), then thirty minutes later blames bullying at school for her later reckless behavior. The most astounding moment may be Macdonald’s questioning of Bobby Brown (painted as a terrible influence by many interviewees). When the subject of drugs is brought up, Brown brushes it away, stating that drugs were not an important part of her life (“Why you wanna’ ask about that?”). A good portion of time is devoted to Whitney’s relationship with former school buddy Robyn Crawford (was she a lover, manager, or both) who is featured in lots of behind the scenes archival footage and is disparaged by the Houston family, but we never really hear her side (guessing she may have declined interview requests). It would have made more sense to limit that subject, since it seems too one-sided (another of several villains). Also, Whitney’s film work is limited to her debut with Costner and her final supporting role in the remake of SPARKLE. WAITING TO EXHALE, THE PREACHER’S WIFE and the TV movie of “Cinderella” (with Whitney as the Fairy Godmother) are never mentioned. Much is made of the accusation of the childhood sexual abuse of Whitney at the hands of a relative (who is now deceased) siting it as a cause of adult problems. That accused abuser is named, but later on during a discussion of the heart-breaking lawsuit filed against Whitney by her later father John, other names of individuals are “bleeped”. These inconsistencies don’t detract from the power of those personal home videos. We see the sweet and soft pop songbird slowly morph into a bitter and hard-edged diva, chain-smoking as she disses other performers (no bleeping as she claims one star is “off key” on her hit single), and even belches when hearing gossip of Bobby’s infidelities. And, as done in the AMY doc, we see how she becomes a pop culture punchline after the disastrous Diane Sawyer “tell all” interview with clips from the “American Dad” TV cartoon, “MadTV” and “Saturday Night Live” with Maya Rudolph screaming “Bobbeee! Bobby Brown!” as though calling in a child for a spanking. Also, as in the other doc, we see painful cell phone video of a more recent humiliating European concert (mangling lyrics while unable to come close to the notes). In a perfect world she would be celebrated with the Kennedy Center Honors and bestowed Congressional and Presidential medals, much as was done with Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and so many others. Instead she’s now remembered by this flawed, but extremely compelling film that will still leave many wondering why, WHITNEY ?

3.5 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.