When Whitney Houston sang 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody', the worldbelieved her. It wasn't just the energetic beat or joyous tone that struck a chord, but the dynamic power of Houston's voice. Her prowess wasn't new news — released in 1987, the track was the first single from her second album, and became her fourth consecutive number one single in the US. And yet, when she trilled so explosively about finding someone to dance with, she seemed like a woman who not only wanted to share her life with that one special person, but also wanted to share her talent with the entire planet.
With Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald tests that theory. Giving the pop superstar the same probing treatment that has driven his previous movies about Bob Marley, artist Cai Guo-Qiang and fellow documentarian Errol Morris, among others, the filmmaker behind Touching the Void, State of Play and Black Sea explores the what, how and why of Houston's life in a thoughtful and solemn fashion. What did she want out of her career? How did she try to achieve it? Why did her story turn out the way it did? They're the questions at the heart of this birth-to-death portrait, all examining the tragic tale of someone who sang like no one else, crooned hits that were heard around the globe and broke music records, but was rarely able to be herself.
If you're already a fan, you'll know the minutiae. Even if you're not, you'll still be aware of Houston's substance abuse issues, and the way that her life came to an end. Macdonald combines candid interviews with Houston's loved ones — including her gospel singer mother Cissy Houston and her ex-husband Bobby Brown — with archival footage, performance clips, family photos, recording demos and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the movie's eponymous figure. Of course, it's not only Houston's specific tale that feels familiar, but the fact that this narrative has played out with plenty of other famous folks of late. Recent documentaries about Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain relayed very similar details, and Whitney: Can I Be Me? tread very similar ground just last year, albeit relying more heavily on backstage footage and focusing more firmly on Houston's relationship with friend Robyn Crawford.
Whitney mightn't tell viewers much that's new; however it assembles its various pieces with a force on par with Houston's roaring voice. The editing on display in the film's contextual montages — which weave together ads and events from the time, Houston's work, and intimate photographs — sets a swift pace that never lets up, as Macdonald squeezes as much as he can into the documentary's two-hour running time. There are gaps, with Brown refusing to talk about drug use, and only some parts of Houston's career getting in-depth attention. There are also splashes of particularly incisive, penetrating insight, including a dissection of the impact of race and class. And there's one huge, heartbreaking revelation, although the way it's treated as a third-act twist sits cheaply and uncomfortably.
Throughout it all, there's Houston herself. As the rise-and-fall music biopic genre understands all too well, there's no substitute for letting a film's subject prove their merits in their own way, with their own voice and in their own words. In Whitney, it's seeing Houston perform that shapes the documentary's sorrowful melody — and, expressly, seeing her shows evolve over the years. First, she's a bright-eyed teenager making her first TV appearance. Soon, she's the most famous singer in the world, unleashing her distinctive take on 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at the 1991 Super Bowl. Later, she's an object of derision during her final tour, which caused walkouts when she came to Brisbane, as the movie shows. Out of all of the above, it's her 1983 rendition of 'Home' on The Merv Griffin Show that echoes throughout the doco, so much so that Macdonald uses it to bookend the picture. With Houston radiant in a purple dress but shining brighter out of sheer talent, the clip perfectly embodies the film's message: that she simply wanted to sing, dance and soar, but couldn't chase away her demons as she chased her dreams.