Magazine article Screen International

'Whitney': Cannes Review

Magazine article Screen International

'Whitney': Cannes Review

Article excerpt

Kevin Macdonald’s sombre documentary seeks the truth about Whitney Houston’s troubled life


Dir: Kevin Macdonald. UK. 2018. 120mins

Sadness imbues Whitney, a sombre documentary about pop superstar Whitney Houston, whose miraculous voice and ubiquitous hits couldn’t stem the tide of drug addiction and personal demons that contributed to her death in 2012, at the age of 48. Both tragic and eerily familiar to other recent portraits of talented, doomed artists including Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? only last year, Kevin Macdonald’s film does its best to wrestle with conventions, offering a broader cultural perspective on Houston’s life and achievements. But what stands out most strongly is the sense that this joyous singer was, perhaps, fated from an early age to lead an unhappy life.

‘Whitney’ is strongest when it connects Houston to the larger history of Black America

Premiering in Cannes, Whitney will come to US and UK theatres July 6. Fans of the singer (who may also have seen Broomfield’s doc) could be enticed by the fact that Macdonald spoke to several of Houston’s family members, friends and business partners to glean insights into her upbringing and struggles. And as similar films such as Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck have demonstrated, deep dives into a musician’s personal life can be commercially viable, although tend to perform best on streaming platforms.

The documentary boasts a relatively straightforward structure, cutting between talking heads and archival footage to tell Houston’s story from her early days to her final moments. However, Macdonald (One Day In September) isn’t just after a highlight reel, instead seeking an understanding about why she chose such a self-destructive path after she attained superstardom by the early 1990s.

It’s easy to get restless at times as Whitney follows a familiar rise-then-fall trajectory. The documentary’s predictable contours risk diminishing her unique qualities - in such broad strokes, the singer’s downward trajectory isn’t so far removed from those of an Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain.

Perhaps recognising this, Macdonald digs deeper, intriguingly inserting quick clips of current events that were occurring simultaneously with the rise of Houston’s career. As she becomes a late-‘80s pop juggernaut, the montages are interspersed with footage of everything from Ronald Reagan to Madonna to Public Enemy, which is Whitney’s attempt to elucidate the political, social and cultural fabric of the times. …

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