Honestly, before I saw the documentary Whitney, I didn’t know much about Whitney Houston at all. She had always intrigued me, but I could probably only name a few of her songs off the top of my head, namely, my classic shower power ballads: “I Will Always Love You” and “I Have Nothing.” But I didn’t grow up with her. I was a generation too late. By the time I was alive and sentient, she was already a legend past her prime. So I definitely feel like I missed out there.
Thankfully, I got to relive her life story through the masterfully woven tapestry that is director Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney. I went from being intrigued by her to falling in love with her in 122 minutes. And that’s how you know you’ve seen a good documentary.
McDonald portrays this legend at her best and at her worst. It was this portrayal of Whitney’s shiny, glamorous, Star-Spangled-Banner-at-the-Super-Bowl best, right through to her desperately lonely, drug-driven, anorexic, arrogant worst, with all the funny little everyday, in-between moments that made me fall in love. Not to mention the huge strides she made for women in general, but particularly women artists of color. Despite being disadvantaged in an incredibly whitewashed America, she still became the most awarded woman artist of all time according to the Guinness World Records and remains one of the best-selling musicians in history. Houston was also a model before she signed a record deal, and became one of the first women of color to be a covergirl for the hugely popular magazine Seventeen, helping to shift mainstream ideas about beauty.
Going into the movie, I expected to see the negative consequences of fame on an unprecedented star like Whitney Houston, and some level of family dysfunctionality. But I wasn’t prepared for how much. The story finds intimacy through the use of home videos, many from her youth. I wanted to scoop little Whitney up and protect her from the brokenness of her upbringing.
Mcdonald shows us honestly but gently, both the tragedy that surrounded her and the sunniness within her. The documentary weaves between despondent interviews with family and friends, and archival footage of a carefree Whitney as she began her career. I watched interviews with everyone who had a major influence in her life, and I saw her through their different lenses. By the end, Macdonald created so much empathy within me toward her because I’d literally just been shown, in chronological order, footage from her birth till death at every pivotal moment. All set to a soundtrack by her, of course.
What really knocked my socks off was that through everything, all the intensity of trauma and fame, she retained her zesty, silly sense of humor and fun. She didn’t take anything, including herself, seriously. This was probably one of her most lovable features (apart from her mind-blowingly raw talent and her ageless grace), but this also might have been her downfall because she didn’t take her rehabilitation seriously either.
When it comes to documentaries, Whitney is as close as it gets to stepping into someone else’s shoes, and it turns out that Whitney’s shoes were more moving, more complex, more talented, and more zesty than I could have imagined.