Nick Broomfield and Kevin Macdonald, both giants of the British documentary industry, have each explored the self-destructive life and intense global career of Whitney Houston. Almost exactly a year after Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me comes Macdonald’s simplistically entitled Whitney – this time signed off by Houston’s family and estate. Where Broomfield’s limited access meant he drew largely from performance footage, Macdonald lets us hear from a collection of people closest to the star. Broomfield’s film focused largely on Houston’s exceptional talent and the contradictions of both her on and off stage personas whereas Macdonald takes a sweeping 360 degree look at everything and everyone surrounding the superstar and the roles played in her success, fame, ongoing addiction and suffering and ultimately her tragic death at the age of just 48. From international sensation to twisted tabloid bait, Houston’s life and career was littered with hurt and betrayal. The tragedy that framed and formed her life and choices was touched upon by Broomfield last year. What Macdonald manages to do is uncover shocking new revelations of childhood horror, through insightful questioning and sensitive, intimate interviews. From Houston’s mother, brothers, friends, ex-employees, agents and husband – Macdonald has succeeded in creating a heartbreaking detailed picture of a girl, a woman and a performer who will always remain something of a mystery. Whitney is a fitting tribute to a simple young woman, complicated and corrupted by the pressures and politics that came hand in hand with an astounding talent and unrivalled success at the age of just 21.
A well-woven tapestry, made up of archive footage of the ever-changing landscape of American history, family videos and honest, insightful talking heads, Whitney not only captures the life and career of Houston but looks at her within the context of her race, her country and her environment. This is a documentary about an African-American singer, not just an American performer. Whitney’s ethnicity is considered and discussed at every stage, from her upbringing, to her media coverage, to her importance to the African-American community. This is particularly captivating in one sequence that looks at her 1991 Superbowl performance of the National Anthem. Her roots in gospel music, the church and the moral values that come with it all help us to more compassionately understand her future choices and decisions, however implosive. The film also invests vital time in exploring Houston’s sexual fluidity and her family’s negative response to this, particularly whilst trying to maintain her public image. With Whitney remaining such a complex star with a legacy riddled with contradictions, there is room for both Broomfield and Macdonald’s documentaries, with both serving very different purposes. Where Broomfield manages to get a little closer to understanding Whitney herself, Macdonald focuses more intently on her career and the exploitation, dishonesty and abuse that surrounded it. The extent of Houston’s drug abuse remains unfathomable but Macdonald certainly clarifies its role as escapism and self-medicinal; a means of survival prolonged by a lack of self-esteem and endless personal and professional pressures. Macdonald manages to craft Whitney into an honest, emotionally stimulated and investigative exploration that will leave you reeling, fan or not.
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