From the moment a brief flash of the big hair and bright colours of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ appears on screen, there is an immediate expectation of a stellar voice to follow. What is heard instead is that same voice, unexpectedly quiet and reflective, asking a question seemingly at odds with the vibrant, aspirational woman on screen: “why is this happening to me?” Hidden behind each of her feel-good anthems, there is a hint of this same message of uncertainty, loneliness, and a desire for something more that has become synonymous with Whitney Houston’s life.
The fragmented opening of the documentary film Whitney is the first clue that the Academy Award-winning duo of Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (Marley, The Last King of Scotland) and producer Simon Chinn (Man on Wire)are not simply retelling the story of a fallen star that so many have recounted before. Instead, they set about capturing the duality of this incredible talent, determined to prove that pain and phenomenal success can, and often do, co-exist.
What sets this biopic apart from those that have gone before is unprecedented access to never-before-seen performances, intimate interviews with family and friends, and extensive archival footage courtesy of the family estate, providing a candid portrait of Houston away from the glitz and glamour of the stage.
Although the documentary’s ultimate goal is to tell a previously untold part of Houston’s story, contextualise her remarkable rise to stardom, and offer some explanation for her untimely death, it acknowledges that this cannot be achieved without reliving her success. Her history-making rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at the Super Bowl in 1991, transformed to echo the style of traditional gospel music, is just one euphoric moment chosen for the documentary which captures her undeniable power and electricity, redefining what was an oppressive anthem for many as a song of liberation and hope.
As the story of her meteoric rise to stardom unfolds, these moments of euphoria and success that defined Houston’s public persona seem painfully fleeting in comparison to the lasting impact of trauma and betrayal that she endured. The documentary delves into her many private battles, including a familial struggle with addiction, her friendship and rumoured relationship with assistant Robyn Crawford, and perhaps the most disturbing revelation uncovered by Macdonald: the alleged childhood abuse of Houston and her brothers by cousin and singer, Dee Dee Warwick.
It also reflects on her tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown, father of Houston’s only daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who tragically died in 2012. Houston may have hoped her connection with singer and rapper Brown would bring the ‘happily ever after’ she had always longed for, but as the interviews with Brown, her brothers and the archival footage show, it was a relationship that enabled their addictions and failed to alleviate the pressures of stardom.
Though her death seemed crushing in its finality, Houston’s legacy as a pop superstar and princess of soul remains. This year has particular significance as it marks the 35th anniversary of her debut album, ‘Whitney Houston’, which spent fourteen weeks at number one and launched her career in spectacular fashion. With a recent chart-topping posthumous collaboration with Norwegian DJ Kygo, a global hologram tour, and planned Vegas residency, it seems that almost four decades on, the world still can’t get enough of Whitney.
Catch Whitney, now streaming at SBS On Demand: