New Documentary Film Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Whitney Houston


Much like Amy, Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary about singer Amy Winehouse, Whitney documents the rise and fall of singer Whitney Houston. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary commences with footage from the music video to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” one of Houston’s biggest hits, but then proceeds in chronological order, telling the story of how Whitney became such a major figure in the pop world and how drugs and personal issues led to her demise.

A limited number of screenings take place tonight, and the movie opens areawide tomorrow.

From the start, Whitney's mother Cissy groomed her as a “legacy” act rather than an overnight sensation. A successful recording artist, Cissy takes Whitney on tour with her and sometimes even lets her sing lead vocals; in the film, she comes off as a real disciplinarian. If Houston didn’t sing a song right, she’d have her sing it over and over until she got it right.

Houston begins modeling but continues to sing and eventually inks a deal with Arista Records. Famously, she and Arista head Clive Davis both appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, and Houston sang the jazzy piano ballad “Home,” a heart wrenching tune that Macdonald shows at the film's beginning and then comes back to at the conclusion.

Whitney issued her debut in 1985, and the hits immediately followed. Macdonald traces her career as the success starts coming, and Whitney even begins acting in major motion pictures. As her popularity soars, her personal life begins to unravel. She has a falling out with both her mother and her father, whom she sues for stealing royalties. The film reveals other problems with relatives and even drops a bombshell regarding the sexual abuse Whitney suffered as a child.

Things only worsen as Whitney parts ways with her childhood friend and onetime roommate Robyn Crawford and marries singer Bobby Brown. She and Brown begin experimenting with drugs, and the film includes harrowing footage of the two of them looking particularly emaciated and acting erractically. Their volatile relationship (Bobby reportedly abused Whitney) became tabloid fodder until the day they divorced. Bobby appears briefly in the movie but refuses to talk about the drug abuse, saying it's not important to the story of her life even though it's clearly what killed her. The movie concludes with a trip to the hotel room where Whitney drowned in a bathtub.

When Madonald sticks to his subject, the movie comes off as an informative, passionate portrayal of a pop icon. When it veers off the subject, like when Macdonald shifts from the “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” music video to include clips of breakfast cereal commercials and news footage from the era without making any substantial connections, the movie falters.

And yet with the extensive interviews with people who knew Whitney at various times in her life, Whitney comes off as a well-researched look at the tragic life of one of pop’s biggest stars.

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