Whitney review: dark family secrets help explain the diva’s sad demise

Dir: Kevin Macdonald; 120 mins; cert tbc

The second and more “official” feature documentary about the steep, upsetting parabola of Whitney Houston’s life, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney comes about a year after Whitney: Can I Be Me, Nick Broomfield’s exploration of her pressurised career and drug-assisted burnout. That film lacked either the endorsement or extensive involvement of the Houston family, above all her mother, Cissy Houston, presented there as the main architect and oppressive controller of her fame.

This one has the Houston clan’s blessing, which cuts two ways. On the plus side, we get a much more intimate sense of Whitney’s upbringing, and one late-arriving bombshell as Macdonald looks to her childhood – described reflexively as “idyllic” by one relative, but marked by a secret history of abuse – to contextualise why addiction took hold.

The danger is what protective agendas might colour the exercise. It’s curious that Cissy appears only at the very start of the film, interviewed briefly in the very church where her daughter’s funeral took place. This doesn’t help the cause in terms of allaying a viewer’s doubts: it feels like Macdonald is taking care to placate Cissy and give her a degree of authorship.

Whitney’s ex-husband, Bobby Brown, is a star contributor on paper, but he clams up totally when Macdonald tries to steer the conversation towards drugs, with the revealingly sinister comment, “That’s not what this film is about.”


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