Kevin Macdonald’s smart, heartbreaking film lets us experience the music alongside the life of the singer who was gone too soon. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
The documentary “Whitney” contains footage of a ghost: Whitney Houston as a bright-eyed teenager, making her television debut in 1983 on Merv Griffin’s talk show, performing “Home” from “The Wiz.” “Time, please stay my friend / And let me start again,” she sings, in words that devastate anyone who knows Houston’s story. At the end, after a glorious final note, she flings her head back, reveling in the moment, before it’s too quickly gone.
In some ways, that clip is more haunting than any other in Kevin Macdonald’s smart, heartbreaking film; even more so than the late-life concert footage of a rasping, drug-ravaged Houston. The singer, who struggled with addiction throughout her life, drowned in 2012 in a hotel bathtub, just 48 years old. Watching her young self, so bright and full of promise, you think of another Dorothy long ago, Judy Garland — both with heaven-sent voices, both lost too soon over the rainbow.
Macdonald, an Oscar-winning documentarian (“One Day in September”), puts Houston’s music in the context of her times; an ’80s montage shows us rapid-fire images of Princess Diana, Madonna, Michael Jackson, an AIDS banner, an Apple logo. And he rounds up an assortment of family members, colleagues and friends to weigh in on Houston’s brief life. Her elderly mother, Cissy Houston, says little, letting the pained strength in her eyes speak; her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, tries to insist that “drugs had nothing to do with her life.” Others are more revealing, speaking of Houston’s drug use, her relationship with Robyn Crawford (who, some speculate, was the forbidden love of Houston’s life), her tendency to “be an ATM for a lot of people.” One name brings tears to several of the speakers: Houston’s only child Bobbi Kristina Brown, known as Krissy, who in 2015 was found, like her mother, unconscious in a bathtub. She died at 22.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- New must-see options to stream this week: the glorious 'Hamilton' and sly 'The Truth'
- Had enough real-life stress lately? Try these 3 crime thrillers for a bit of fictional relief.
- Now streaming: Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Hamilton,' '#Anne Frank — Parallel Stories,' 'Wallflower'
- New on Hulu in July 2020: 'Palm Springs,' 'The Assistant,' 'The Trip' movies and more
- Dinner at a Movie goes to the drive-in — at Seattle’s swanky Canlis!?
Late in the film, a bombshell about Houston’s early years is dropped; one that helps make sense of her life, but that makes it all the more tragic. “Whitney” lets us experience the music — the bouncy silk of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; the soaring notes of “I Will Always Love You”; the clear-voiced, heavenward authority of her iconic Super Bowl “Star-Spangled Banner” — alongside the life. It’s hard to watch young Whitney, knowing what lies ahead, but it seems important to do as the film does: take a moment, and just listen to her sing.
★★★½ “Whitney,” a documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald. 120 minutes. Rated R for language and drug content. Multiple theaters.