They say timing is everything in comedy. Turns out it's a big deal in tragedy too.
Whitney, Kevin Macdonald's new documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston, is insightful and journalistically credible, but because it follows a string of other "celebrities who died too young" docs and narratives, its impact is diminished. Though emotionally resonant, it's just a tad too familiar.
This is the third movie about Houston in the last three years, following a Lifetime television flick and a Showtime documentary, and both of those came on the heels of the Oscar-winning Amy, which addressed the untimely demise of Amy Winehouse and was produced by the same team behind Whitney. The latter film, directed by Macdonald (who has made many docs but is best known for The Last King of Scotland), is better than those other Houston films and is comparable to Amy, despite its more straightforward style. But that might not prevent its viewers from coming down with a mild case of biopic fatigue.
What sets Whitney apart is the extraordinary cooperation of the singer's family, friends and collaborators, who often stare straight into the camera with an intensity rarely seen in documentary filmmaking. (This is the first film to be authorized by Houston's estate.) Almost everyone you'd hope to hear from is here, including Bobby Brown (who gives a compellingly belligerent interview), Clive Davis and Houston's Aunt Bae (who helped raise Houston's daughter and gives an especially heartfelt account of her niece's and grandniece's lives). Casual fans – and even Houston's devout followers – will learn a lot, and the doc is probably worth a watch even if you don't like her music. (You just might change your mind.)
Most noteworthy is a journalistic coup involving an allegation of child abuse. That bombshell doesn't drop until the film's second half, but it's worth the wait, as it briefly elevates the movie from a talking-heads documentary about past events to one that actually makes news.
Macdonald reaches too far when weaving in cultural references, and his inclusion of abundant news and commercial clips is a transparent effort to enhance the appeal and style of a story that is, at its heart, personal and small. Of course, Houston's tale was inextricably bound up with America's racial story. (Who can forget how Houston was ridiculed once she veered away from black gospel and toward white pop? Conversely, everyone remembers the positive impact of The Bodyguard's interracial kiss.) But Whitney is best when it's showing us never-before-seen home movies, allowing Houston's mom to reminisce about her daughter's talent and painting an intimate portrait of an American musical tragedy.
"The devil is trying to get me," Houston said when describing a recurring dream. "But he never gets me."
That quote is used at both the beginning and end of the film to illuminate the Shakespearean elements of her rise and fall. As with Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Prince and the countless other celebrities that fame and drugs have taken from us recently, we may never truly understand Houston's downfall. But Macdonald's doc at least tries to give us answers while simultaneously celebrating her life.
Oh, and we get to hear Houston sing. A lot! And sometimes that's enough.