From wowing parishioners at Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church at the age of eleven to her tragic death at forty-eight, the record breaking recording artist whose latter years would be tabloid fodder had devastating secrets. Oscar winning documentarian Kevin MacDonald ("One Day in September") digs deep to illuminate the troubled past that destroyed "Whitney."
Last year, British documentarian Nick Broomfield ("Kurt and Courtney") gave us "Whitney: Can I Be Me," a work that followed her career from her Gospel choir days through her death using current interviews, performance footage and a mixture of home videos and Tabloid coverage. Broomfield pointed at several events that led to her demise, most notably having been booed at the Soul Train Awards on the night she met Bobby Brown and Brown's own admission that she probably would still be alive today if Robyn Crawford had been allowed to remain in her life.
But while Broomfield's documentary was good, he revealed little new about the singer other than never-before-seen footage. MacDonald's work goes much further, not only unveiling a horrific truth about Whitney's family, but illustrating how that damage was inherited by a new generation, Whitney's own daughter. One also comes away from MacDonald's film with more appreciation for just what was destroyed, Whitney's talent and trust in those around her. While "Whitney" is not in the same realm as Asif Kapadia's "Amy," the parallels between the two women are astounding.
After tracing Whitney's early days in Trenton during the 1960's riots with the assistance of Aunt Bae and Whitney's own voice, MacDonald begins peeling back layers. Whitney, a quiet child, was bullied in school, shuttled among four or five families when her mother was on tour, and deeply affected by her parents' divorce and whispers among church members about her mother's (backup singer Cissy Houston) affair with their minister. Cissy, who never broke out as a solo performer, was strict, guiding her daughter's career into the one she'd hoped to have, one carefully shaped for crossover appeal, a decision many in the Black community called selling out (Reverend Al Sharpton derided her as 'Whitey' Houston.) Cissy also hated Robyn Crawford.
Whitney's brothers Gary and Mike recount their close relationship, Whitney following her brothers' lead in drug experimentation in her teens despite her outward squeaky clean image. When Whitney finally left the controlling influence of her home, by then in suburban East Orange, she moved in with Robyn Crawford. There were a series of prominent heterosexual romances, but Whitney remained coy with the press, until that night at the Soul Train awards - did the sophisticated Whitney's embrace of the 'raw' Bobby Brown who she met that night have a direct correlation to her reception there? Most of those MacDonald interviews attest to the real love between them (MacDonald backs them up with playful video footage), but her love of drugs and his love of booze became intertwined and Bobby was the reason Whitney finally ejected Robyn - her long time conduit to her record label, tour producer and trusted ally - from her life. When her popularity exploded after "The Bodyguard," many state that Whitney lowered herself to raise Bobby up. When her father, whom she'd always been closer to than her mother, sued her for $100 million, Whitney became even more isolated.
MacDonald also highlights Whitney's talent, some concert footage inducing chills, her legendary performance and interpretation of 'The Star Spangled Banner' before the 1991 Super Bowl a study in race relations. Every decade of her career is given a pop cultural montage, placing her music within the context of history. After all these years, it is still shocking to see photographs of an emaciated Houston performing her concert for Michael Jackson or to hear her croaking her way through her 'comeback tour.' But it is the testimony of two women, long time family friend 'Aunt' Bae, who essentially raised Bobbi Kristina, and, longtime personal assistant Mary Jones, who found Whitney's body, that truly express the tragedy of her life, the latter disclosing the identity behind the horrific childhood event her brother corroborates without naming names.
Robin did not see this film.
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