Taking an in-depth look into the life and music of Whitney Houston, documentary film Whitney, directed by Kevin Macdonald, harnesses archive footage alongside new interviews to shed light on Whitney’s talent, as well as her tragedy.
Macdonald is no stranger to a documentary, having won an academy award for Best Documentary for One Day in September (about the Palestinian terrorist group Black September) in 2000. Also known for Touching the Void and How I Live Now, he is also used to a challenging story. Macdonald’s ability to seamlessly combine archive footage with new interviews is impeccably polished and renders a striking fluidity of movement; not unlike Whitney’s choreography and extraordinary voice. However, Whitney certainly feels like a film of two halves. The first relishes her talent and nurturing of her voice, whilst the second half focuses on her struggles with motherhood, drugs, and harmful abusive relationships. Whitney provides new, or at least unexplored, avenues into her life, using unseen archival footage which, until now, had not reached the public eye.
‘Macdonald delicately edits interviews with performances and archive moments, leaving us with a carefully composed story that does not shy away from difficult topics’
Nonetheless, Whitney’s life has certainly been scrutinised throughout her fame, particularly after her tragically premature death in 2012. Unquestionably, Whitney’s story is troubling and upsetting, but this documentary is not without some humour. Macdonald’s homage celebrates her, and the family of singers from which she comes from, as determined, strong women; willing to stand up and celebrate black culture and soul tradition – even despite accusations of Whitney being “white music”. This particularly shines through with Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother, who taught her how to use her voice correctly and powerfully. Having a singing career herself, and seeing Whitney’s talent, Cissy mentored Whitney sternly but not without love. Despite the problems prevalent from placing such pressure on a girl barely sixteen years old, the faith in Whitney’s talent displays Cissy’s resilient love for her daughter as well as nurturing her God-given gift.
Importantly though, Whitney opens up the conversation of accusations of Whitney’s abuse by a family member when she was a child – something which the family have not talked about over worries it would taint her image. This topic is handled tentatively and sensitively through interviews by those close to her, who understandably find it difficult to talk about. As Pat Houston, sister-in-law and executive producer, has said, Whitney’s story “could only be told by the people who really knew her” (from an interview with GMA); something which is respected by Macdonald who delicately edits interviews with performances and archive moments; leaving us with a carefully composed story that does not shy away from difficult topics.
The music used in the documentary is also not limited to Whitney, but performances from the Houston’s talented family of singers, showcasing Cissy Houston as well as Whitney’s siblings. Of course, Whitney’s voice undoubtedly stands out, making even those who are not fans of her music sit back in awe; allowing it to sink into their souls, making all hairs stand on end. Whitney’s contributions to the music industry and the legendary Bodyguard hit, I Will Always Love You, strikes a particularly poignant chord, particularly in light of her family and friend’s clear affections for her.
Whitney feels tender and raw, whilst every bit of footage is carefully picked to illustrate a fuller image of a real icon and tragic story. We are subtly taken through Whitney’s timeline through images of contemporary events; grounding the documentary in social and political moments without feeling irrelevant. More than anything, it displays Whitney as more than an iconic voice, but as a human being with struggles and difficulties.
Be sure to see Whitney, in cinemas from 6th July.