by Kaleem Aftab
- CANNES 2018: Kevin Macdonald highlights sexual abuse allegations in his documentary on singer Whitney Houston, showing as a Midnight Screening
The life and early demise of Whitney Houston is proving so fascinating to white British men that Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney [+see also:
film profile] is the second UK documentary about the popular singer to debut in the past year. First on stage was Nick Broomfield’s sensational hack job, Whitney: Can I Be Me [+see also:
film profile], in which he supposes that the musician’s troubles with drug addiction and her difficult marriage to Bobby Brown could be put down to not being allowed to come out as bisexual. Macdonald’s more considered affair, showing as a Midnight Screening at the Cannes Film Festival, has a more investigative-journalist approach, and the Oscar-winning director of One Day in September (2000) made this film with the blessing of the Houston family, who feature in talking heads throughout the doc, describing the best-selling artist’s life from her childhood singing in gospel choirs in Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, through her parent’s divorce, to making a living as a model in New York City and signing to Arista Records, led by record executive Clive Davis, at the tender age of 19. Then came the record-breaking song sales and the movie appearances, but also the drugs, the difficult marriage to Brown, divorce, reality TV and finally her death in a Beverly Hills hotel-room bathroom at the age of 48 in 2012. It also focuses on the troubled life and even earlier death of her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
Macdonald interviewed more than 70 people for the project, and they feature in talking-head interviews, where the voice of the director can often be heard trying to ask probing questions. Key subjects include Ellen White, a family friend known as Aunt Bae and Houston’s long-time personal assistant Mary Jones, as well as interviews with family members, including her older brothers Michael and Gary and her mother, Emily “Cissy” Houston, plus record-industry heavyweights. It’s these interviews that are the most illuminating in a film that contains footage of Houston songs, as well as archive material from the periods of time to which the stories being relayed pertain, as Macdonald tries to give a broader cultural perspective on events. In terms of structure and approach, the documentary is quite standard and adheres to the thorough, but at times staid, approach seen in the director’s previous music documentary, Marley [+see also:
film profile], about Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley. The big revelation is the allegation that the singer was sexually abused by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick, and this acts as a focal point and a cloud hanging over the documentary.
Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy [+see also:
film profile] has set a benchmark for documentaries reappraising the lives of musicians who were also tabloid fodder before their unfortunate early deaths, and Whitney never reaches those heights, especially in the analysis of the songs. Where Macdonald’s work does excel is in its breadth and scope, and also in the director’s ability to get his protagonists to open up.