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Review: The expert ‘Whitney’ sheds new light on Whitney Houston’s triumphant and tragic life

A photograph of Whitney Houston in a scene from the documentary “Whitney.” Credit: Stefano Baroni
Whitney Houston from the documentary “Whitney.”
(The Estate of Whitney E. Houston)
Film Critic

The story of singer Whitney Houston, one of the preeminent voices of her time dead in a Beverly Hills hotel room at age 48, not only has the inevitability of tragedy, it is legitimately tragic.

So no matter how many times it’s told — and Kevin Macdonald’s expert “Whitney” is the third documentary to tell the tale in the past year — it cannot fail to move and disturb with a story so compelling you can’t turn away even if you know the outcome. Maybe especially if you know the outcome.

For the record:
12:10 PM, Jul. 05, 2018 An earlier version of this review misidentified the singer’s sister-in-law and executive producer of the film, Pat Houston, as Pam.

Macdonald, an Oscar-winning director for “One Day in September,” had certain advantages over the other documentarians going in, including his experience directing the splendid “Marley” about the reggae legend, and he makes excellent use of all of them.

Unlike Nick Broomfield’s earlier “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” Macdonald had the cooperation of Houston’s family, with the singer’s sister-in-law Pat Houston, the executor of her estate, serving as an executive producer.

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This ensured not only exclusive interviews with the singer’s relatives, including her indomitable mother Cissy and her two brothers, but also use of the entire range of Houston’s music.

So be prepared to be overwhelmed by Houston’s live television debut, singing “Home” from “The Wiz” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1983, as well as her stratospheric success with “I Will Always Love You” from “My Bodyguard,” a song so irresistible that Saddam Hussein used the Arabic version as his campaign song.

Given its own segment is the wizardly work the singer did with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with musical director Rickey Minor and others detailing exactly how Houston’s mesmerizing version came to be and what it meant.

FILM-WHITNEY-REVIEW
John Houston is embraced by his daughter, Whitney.
(Photo from the estate of Whitney Houston )

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READ MORE: Unflinching Whitney Houston film was the therapy a grieving, damaged family needed »

But, obviously, Houston’s singing can be heard elsewhere, and the main reason to see “Whitney” is the way it explores the baffling conundrums of her life.

Despite or maybe because of that family assistance, Macdonald was unable to gain the cooperation of Robyn Crawford, a friend since high school and a rumored romantic partner who was closest to Houston – “her safety net” says makeup artist Ellin LaVar — and was the rare figure in the singer’s entourage who put Houston’s interests before her own.

But almost everyone else does talk, revealing stresses, backbiting and rivalries as they try and parse the key question in the singer’s life: how someone with so many gifts could end up in such bad shape.

In this, “Whitney” resembles “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary on British singer Amy Winehouse, and though this film is less groundbreaking stylistically, its story is as involving.

And Macdonald does uncover one of Houston’s secrets, vouched for by two family members, that she was sexually molested as a child by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick, the sister of singer Dionne Warwick.

But “Whitney” understands that it’s too simplistic to attribute all its subject’s problems to one cause. A lot of things had to go wrong before the bullet train that was her career derailed. When someone says early on that “it would take an act of Congress to keep this girl from becoming a major star,” it was the literal truth.

Houston, whose family called her Nippy, came from a singing, striving background, with mother Cissy singing backup for the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin and her father John maneuvering his life from political deal-making in Newark to a position as his daughter’s manager.

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Though affairs on both sides derailed the marriage, the first of a series of intense disappointments in Houston’s personal life, her parents’ passion for her career led to a contract with veteran Clive Davis of Arista Records. He covers a lot of territory when he says, “she had a voice like no voice I’d ever heard.”

Houston’s debut album at age 21 was extraordinarily multi-platform successful and the hits just kept on coming: The singer had seven consecutive No. 1 hits, something not even the Beatles or Elvis had been able to accomplish.

But though both her brothers say all three siblings had been using drugs since Houston was in her teens, the money she earned as a star enabled everyone to indulge to unprecedented levels. “I like it,” she told her film agent Nicole David, “and I’m going to do it until I want to stop.”

Houston hoped that her marriage to Bobby Brown, a singer with a bad boy image, would be a happily ever after affair, but the singer’s ascent to global icon after her film success costarring with Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard” added to already present strains.

Though her entourage could see what was happening, and because Houston was, in the words of one observer, “a bit of an ATM for a lot of people,” no one took decisive action as the wheels started to come off this golden coach. Houston always believed she could outrun her demons, but as this gripping documentary underlines, it did not work out that way.

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“Whitney”

Rated: R, for language and drug content.

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Running time: 2 hours

Playing: In general release

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran


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