Approaching this documentary about Whitney Houston, one could be forgiven for questioning how many films about the pop sensation we need. Last year, Nick Broomfield delivered Whitney: Can I Be Me, a serviceable look at the singer’s supersonic rise and rapid fall. But Kevin Macdonald’s film is a far more comprehensive experience. If you only see one Whitney doc this year, make it this one.
Macdonald, who effortlessly seems to switch between features (The Last King of Scotland, Black Sea) and non-fiction (One Day In September, Touching The Void), already has a track record in documenting musical icons. His 2012 film Marley chronicled the life of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley. But whereas that was a rather easy-going, life-loving film, Whitney is tinged with tragedy.
Unlike Broomfield, Macdonald’s film is authorised, meaning the Houston family are intimately involved. If that suggests Macdonald is out to paint a sanitised portrait, nothing could be further from the truth. He relentlessly questions and cross-examines friends, family, colleagues and cohorts. Even Bobby Brown, Houston’s ex and the man many believe led her towards a decadent lifestyle of drug-taking before her untimely death, aged 48, makes an appearance.
Towards the end of the film, there are some serious revelations regarding Houston’s childhood that go some way to explaining her demons. But Macdonald isn’t interested in muck-raking. There’s just as much attention paid to her triumphs, from her generation-defining rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl to her boundary-breaking turn in mega-hit movie The Bodyguard.
Together with his editor Sam Rice-Edwards Macdonald also contextualizes Houston’s music with some nifty montages that place her upbeat sound squarely in the midst of Reagan’s America. If you weren’t a fan before, you’ll certainly come to appreciate just how this daughter of a Gospel singer rose to become a beloved artist who sold 200 million records.
If the film doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse film, Amy, a film that feels like a spiritual cousin to Whitney, it’s nevertheless an elegantly constructed piece of detective work. Arguably Macdonald’s best film since mountaineering drama Touching the Void, this demands to be seen.
Whitney opens on 6 July. For more details, click here.
1. Still from Whitney.