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Whitney

Friday Jul 6, 2018
'Whitney'
'Whitney'  

Go into any club these days and you will see the quickest way a DJ can fill the dance floor is to play "I Want to Dance With Somebody," the sunny hit that Whitney Houston released some 31 years ago. The appeal of this upbeat song, sung by a playful Houston in the video, appears to cross generations - Houston is one of the few '80s artists to be embraced and loved by Millennials, which has given her songs a new life.

She was, simply, the greatest pop voice of her generation, with a multi-octave range, gorgeous tone, and seemingly unbelievable depth. In 1993, Stephen Holden from The New York Times wrote: "Whitney Houston is one of the few contemporary pop stars of whom it might be said: the voice suffices. While almost every performer whose albums sell in the millions calls upon an entertainer's bag of tricks, from telling jokes to dancing to circus pyrotechnics, Ms. Houston would rather just stand there and sing." Houston was a stunning, lyrical, five-octave musical magician, who effortlessly glided from soaring highs to gritty, passionate lows."

How the voice deteriorated became a subject of much speculation after her untimely death at the age of 48 in 2012. It was apparent by the time of her "Nothing but Love World Tour" in 2010 that her voice was gone. Fans walked out of her performances and she canceled numerous others for personal reasons. One such appearance is seen in "Whitney," the absorbing new documentary by Kevin Macdonald, where she is seen struggling to complete a song while being jeered by the audience. The sad fact is that she's fully aware of her vocal deficiencies as she finishes.

But "Whitney" really doesn't look at her voice or offer many musical sequences. Instead, Macdonald tells a devastatingly sad story of a life doomed from the start through interviews with key family members and acquaintances and copious archival footage, much of which has never been seen before.

The film begins with Houston relating a childhood dream of being chased by a mysterious figure that her mother (gospel singer Cissy Houston) says is the Devil. "I wake up always exhausted from running," she says. It proves to be a key image: Who knows what kind of life Houston might have had if she hadn't been groomed for stardom from an early age and controlled by her family and others over the course of her career?

The sad truth that "Whitney" reveals is that the singer - a shy girl from Orange, New Jersey - was pushed by her music business savvy mother from an early age to be star. She became an overnight sensation in 1985 with the release of her first album. Humble, beautiful and blessed with an incredible voice, she seemed an unstoppable pop sensation, the only woman to break through the hold that male groups had on the charts in the late 1980s. She transitioned to films with "The Bodyguard" in 1992, in which she played a pop star, not unlike herself. She may have won a Razzie Award for her performance, but the film grossed $120 million dollars in the U.S.

In the early 2000s Houston received the highest advance for any artist for a new album, but by then her career (and voice) began to tailspin. Her "nice girl" image was replaced with a selfish, often arrogant diva. Her marriage to rap star Bobby Brown only added to her bad girl image, as did the tabloid stories about her drug use. Her proposed album was still-born, her drug use became public and her voice (when she did sing) was showing serious deterioration. Her appearance on her husband's reality show only made her a joke with the public as performers begin to impersonate her on comedy shows. Watching these clips from Saturday Night Live and MadTV are painful to watch given the context given in the film.

Macdonald tells this story with a sober, quiet intensity, which builds to the film's final chapter when he reveals that Houston had been abused as a child by her cousin DeeDee Warwick (Dionne's sister) and speculates on how that affected her life. What gives the film its backbone are the interviews that Macdonald does with the key figures in Houston's life: Her mother Cissy, her husband Bobby, record producer Clive Davis (who discovered her) and family members, work associates and friends. The interviews also reveal such tidbits as Houston likely had a gay relationship with her best friend from high school, Robyn Crawford, who became her career confidante until Brown made her choose between him and her. It is speculated by a family friend that Houston's sexuality could be considered (to use the current terminology) as "fluid," and that her marriage to Brown was a way to counter the tabloid rumors about her sexuality.

By far the saddest aspect of the film is the story of Bobbi Kristina Brown, Houston's daughter, whose life was equally doomed as her mother's. Brought up during the tumult of her mother's tours and parents' contentious marriage, she appears a lost soul in the film's footage. (She died from complications of being found faced down in a bathtub 10 months after her mother died in similar circumstances.)

Houston's drug use is addressed in the film but, curiously, not by Bobby Brown, who claims that it had nothing to with her death. How it is chronicled comes in the film's final third, about the saddest sequence of any recent release. Her troubled marriage, her addictions, her money problems, her embarrassing comeback tour, her issues with her father (who, after skimming Houston for years, sued her for $100 million dollars shortly before his death), all come to play. With brevity and insight, Macdonald tells the tale of a troubled singer not unlike Judy Garland.

One thing that appears to be missing throughout the film is music, which is only heard in brief clips. Perhaps the reason for this is that Macdonald saves Houston's vocalizing for a maximum effect, saving a clip of the young Houston (in her first television appearance) singing "Home," the powerful finale to the musical "The Wiz." In the purity and power of her voice, it only magnifies her tragedy.

Whitney

Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald examines the life and career of singer Whitney Houston. Features never-before-seen archival footage, exclusive recordings, rare performances and interviews with the people who knew her best.

Info

Runtime :: 120 mins
Release Date :: Jul 06, 2018
Language :: Silent
Country :: United Kingdom

Crew

Director :: Kevin Macdonald
Producer :: Simon Chinn
Producer :: Jonathan Chinn
Producer :: Lisa Erspamer
Executive Producer :: Nicole David
Executive Producer :: Pat Houston
Executive Producer :: Will Clarke
Executive Producer :: Andy Mayson
Executive Producer :: Mike Runagall
Executive Producer :: Zanne Devine
Executive Producer :: Rosanne Korenberg
Executive Producer :: Joe Patrick
Cinematographer :: Nelson Hume
Film Editor :: Sam Rice-Edwards


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