‘Whitney’ is a documentary in search of its lost soul

Whitney Houston's turbulent life is rendered conventionally in Kevin Macdonald's new documentary

A good documentary is like a good magic trick, it takes elements of the real world that you’re familiar with, and uses sleight of hand to present those elements in a brand-new and scintillating way. The choice of subject matter, and the style in which it’s presented, are absolutely everything. A bad documentary and a bad magic trick have elements in common too. The behind-the-scenes machinations may be distractingly overt, the constituent elements too familiar or poorly presented, or the style may clash with the subject matter.

Whitney is not a bad documentary, but it possesses enough of the hallmarks of one to keep it from being a particularly good one. Forcefully directed by Kevin Macdonald with the blessing of Whitney Houston’s estate (the first time they’ve granted such permission since her untimely death in 2012), the film chronicles her life from childhood, moving through her rise to fame in the 1980s before her personal and professional decline and tragic passing in the 2012.

A documentary’s most persuasive presentational tool is its editing, and there’s some fleeting fun in the sheer filmmaking verve of some of Macdonald’s sequences. An early success montage practically weaponises the Kuleshov effect as historical events, famous contemporary faces, close-ups of money and hints towards Houston’s future drug use are cut between snippets of her music videos and her singles consistently reaching #1 on the charts. A later montage is similarly used to illustrate her downfall, intercut with scandalous tabloid headlines and literal explosions from contemporary war footage.

The problem with this editing technique is that, as fun as it is, it’s headbangingly obvious, amateur-level filmmaking. Macdonald is a better filmmaker than that. It’s the tip of an iceberg of irritation. One particularly annoying example of Macdonald’s manipulative filmmaking occurs during an ostensible ‘revelation’ in the narrative, wherein it is imparted that many of Houston’s relatives became paid employees as part of her entourage. Previously during the introduction of an interviewee, a subtitle would appear to illustrate how exactly they were related to Houston: “Brother”, “Family Friend”, etc. After it is revealed that many of these figures were, at one time, her employees, their subsequent re-introductions would be subtitled “Brother, Employee” etc, for the remainder of the film.

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Macdonald’s attempts to nudge the audience to consider the nuances of Houston’s life come off as an insistent shove which proves extremely grating, even amidst the refreshing candour of the interviews themselves.

The film fails to offer any justification for why it’s being made now, or even at all. It’s no hardship to be reminded of Houston’s extraordinary talent, but the film offers no new information or insight into her life that a skim read of her Wikipedia page wouldn’t reveal. Previously unreleased home video footage of her real-life disposition offers food for thought, but most of the talking heads simply speculate exactly as we, the public, have done for years; why exactly was she so self-destructive, how was it allowed to continue, and why did nobody intervene?

There are small flashes that hint towards a better version of this documentary, one that focusses more on her music and demonstrates how the heights of her superstardom were inextricably linked to her downfall. But such a documentary would have to dig beyond the conjecture of family members who have a legacy and themselves to protect. The whole documentary ultimately feels disappointingly hollow, unable to surmount the absence of Whitney herself. Even a semblance of Houston’s self-analysis would have been welcome; she was often refreshingly frank about herself, and glimpses of that could have been extremely effective in heightening the tragedy of her failed potential.

Despite these foibles, it’s not an unenjoyable watch. It’s never less than engaging – Houston herself was a luminous screen presence and her family and friends similarly light up as they reminisce about her – plus there’s a real kick of nostalgia to reliving her greatest hits which can’t be denied. I think the reason this review comes off far more negatively than I felt while watching it is because Houston deserves a far better monument to her life and talents than this film. Despite my love for Whitney and my continued sorrow for her tragic later years and inauspicious passing, the film didn’t make me cry, and that says a great deal. Like with a fumbled magic trick, I remained unmoved.