Cited as the most awarded female act of all time, legendary singer Whitney Houston’s celebrated career and her subsequent tragic death are the latest subject for master-documenteer Kevin Macdonald.
With previous credits including heralded documentaries Touching the Void, Life in a Day and the Oscar-winning biopic The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald is undoubtedly the right man for this job, stepping in to shed new light on the already well-documented story of Houston’s rise and devastating fall.
I should point out at this point that I am a huge fan of Whitney Houston, so of course this documentary was high up on my most anticipated films of the year. Having very recently watched the 2017 TV documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me? I had been concerned that Whitney would just be a carbon-copy of this, another run-of-the-mill documentary with nothing new to say that would merely leave audiences wondering why it needed to exist. Of course, in the safe hands of Macdonald, this should never have been a concern, and what he has managed to craft is a film which has enough sense of familiarity but yet also delivers shocking and perhaps previously unknown revelations about Whitney’s life.
The documentary, for the most part, covers Whitney’s life chronologically, however, it cleverly leaves certain things open and ambiguous; a proverbial trail of breadcrumbs which are picked up later on. Similarly to Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (an Altitude release, as is Whitney), there is the horrible powerless feeling of watching a car wreck in slow-motion, but the way Whitney unfolds and the way the story is constructed with these aforementioned breadcrumbs ensures that there are moments which still shock and surprise. The revelations, when they do come, are devastating and gut-punching, and Macdonalds methods mean this is a story thrillingly told, expertly paced, and positively electric in its execution.
There is always the risk with a story like this that it’ll become sensationalized, but that is never territory that Whitney strays into. The immense talent and tragedy of Whitney Houston are given an equal share and the film goes to incredible lengths to ensure that all sides of the story are covered. It inevitably points the finger in some ways regarding Whitney’s spiral into drug addiction, but also never in a way which is conclusive. This could have come across as frustrating, but again it is so well-handled by Macdonald that it leaves you with the feeling that all factors were in some way contributory to Whitney’s fate.
For this reason, and many more, Whitney is a breathtaking documentary that manages to deliver a fresh take on a person whose life has already been the subject of so much scrutiny. This probably won’t be the last time a documentary examines her life, but Whitney, for now, succeeds in being the definitive Whitney Houston documentary; sensitively told yet with undeniable fire and passion. This is not just one of the best documentaries of the year, but one of the best films of the year. For fans and newcomers alike, Whitney offers a personal and captivating snapshot of a talented and tragic figure; unmissable.
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald