Why would a superstar like Whitney Houston turn to drugs and send her seemingly charmed life spiraling toward destruction? In a new documentary, “Whitney,” opening in theaters on July 6, filmmaker Kevin Macdonald attempts to answer that question, but ends up raising even more.
Unfortunately, Houston’s family and friends are unable to speak truth about the singer’s battle with addiction and tragic 2012 drowning death in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom.
Former husband Bobby Brown simply refuses to speak on camera about her drug use. Her brothers (and suppliers) seem to simply shrug of their roles before casting blame on Houston’s longtime friend and confidante Robyn Crawford, a lesbian. Finally, former assistant Mary Jones divulges her belief that Houston was molested as a child by a close family member, her aunt Dee Dee Warwick (who died in 2008).
While Macdonald leaves conclusions to the audience—and there is plenty of blame to go around—his film never downplays the charisma and incredible voice that catapulted Houston from her New Jersey church choir to international stardom, thanks to expert use of archival footage and the interviews from those who knew the singer best.
Houston was born with a pedigree. Her mother was a busy R&B back-up singer, always on the verge of a solo career, and her aunt was Dionne Warwick. In searing interviews, a steely-eyed Cissy Houston still pains over the death of a daughter who grabbed the star she could not.
In her first national television appearance in 1983 on the “Merv Griffin Show,” Houston performs “Home” from “The Wiz.” The haunting clip of a bright-eyed, innocent teen belies the demons that would emerge later. Platinum albums would soon follow, along with her iconic 1991 Super Bowl rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The Bodyguard,” with its own unforgettable anthem, “And I Will Always Love You.”
Audiences are not allowed to forget the rare talent she harnessed, but Macdonald always comes back to that question, “Why?” It’s difficult to watch the footage of her disastrous comeback tour and then there are the funny, if almost cruel “Saturday Night Live” skits that seemed to foreshadow the events to come. At times Macdonald goes overboard, inserting footage from ‘60s civil rights riots and the 1991 Gulf War to not-so-subtly punctuate the turmoil that seemed to parallel in Houston’s personal life.
The one interview that is conspicuously missing is with Crawford. Family members admit that she had a way of managing Houston and always putting the singer’s career and needs first. Crawford may never open up publicly about the most intimate details of her relationship with Houston, but family members seem to have their own opinions.
If Houston was indeed bisexual or gay, perhaps her life might have taken a different path. The African-American church is still hostile to LGBTQ people, even downright homophobic, and Cissy Houston’s interviews in the New Jersey sanctuary clearly indicate the hold of their faith on the family.
Maybe the question should be “What if?”
“Whitney” by Kevin Macdonald opens nationwide in theaters on Friday, July 6. Check local listings for theaters and show times. More information at Whitney.film.