Whitney Houston’s singing voice, at its peak, could consistently knock you back. But when it drifts out, disembodied, at the start of Whitney – Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary on her life, out last Friday – it slices to the bone. You hear her talking, as though absentmindedly. “I’m always running from this giant; I’m always running from this big man,” she says. “I know I can make it. My mother always says, ‘well you know, that’s nothing but the devil. He’s just trying to get you. He just wants your soul.’” At this point she laughs, and the dread of her unknowing premonition about the end of her life jars against her momentary glee. “And in a sense it’s true. It’s been several times the devil has tried to get me. But he never gets me. And it’s funny: when I wake up, I’m always exhausted from running.”
By now, every possible angle on Whitney’s demise has been poked at and picked over. Her drug use had turned into a punchline before she died. People squawked “crack is wack” on school playgrounds, imitating the now-infamous quote from her shaky Diane Sawyer interview in 2002. She turned into a meme in death, too. Weeks before Macdonald’s Whitney reached cinemas last weekend, Kanye West reportedly paid $85,000 to use a 2006 paparazzi shot of drugs paraphernalia strewn around the sink in Houston’s bathroom as the cover art for Pusha T’s Daytona album. In all of these narratives, Houston became yet another model of the “female tragic icon” form. It broadly invalidates those women’s work, using the trajectory of their success or the weight of their talent as a ramp up towards breathtaking decline.It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, for a film about a woman artist to spend a substantial amount of time on her creative output. Whitney does some of that. It impressively splices together unseen and intimate footage of Houston and her husband Bobby Brown, interviews with her family and staff, plus archive footage from her music videos, live performances, award show appearances and so on. To be fair, it is tightly edited and intent on hammering home a story about what she meant as a black crossover American sweetheart in the 80s and 90s.But besides a section devoted to the arrangement of Houston’s incredible (and yes, pre-recorded) “Star Spangled Banner” performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, most of her artistry is whipped past in flickering montages. Netflix’s What Happened Miss Simone, for example, didn’t do too badly in this respect. The 2015 film focused on Nina Simone’s studious work ethic and the years she spent pushing herself as a classical pianist in the face of a deeply racist society that doubted her accomplishments, before diving into the murk of her mental health struggles. But Simone, a legend as she was, was never strictly a pop artist along the lines of someone like Houston.
We’ve already written about how Nick Broomfield’s 2017 Whitney documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me illuminates the gendered mindfuck of the pop industry (see also: Asif Kapadia’s Amy, distributed by the same production company as Whitney). Women in pop are built up to be torn down in a way that doesn’t allow them to be messy, contradictory figures. And so Whitney will probably disappoint fans who wanted a documentary on her life that also digs deep into her music. Instead, you’ll walk away learning about: her inner struggles; her family’s homophobia in the face of her relationship with close friend and confidant Robyn Crawford (who’s spoken about, but not interviewed); a shocking revelation from her childhood that implicitly speaks to her choice to self-medicate with drugs as she grew older; her shortcomings as a mother who tried to raise her kid on tour. But, it becomes fairly clear that Macdonald didn’t know much about Houston before he made the doc. And I mean that he didn’t seem to know much about her music, in any way beyond an engagement with her hits and a sense of the scale of her stardom.A recent interview Macdonald gave Simon Mayo, for BBC Radio 5 Live, flags this up. When producer Simon Chin asked Macdonald whether he’d want to make a film about Houston, Macdonald said his response was: “‘No, not really – I’m not that interested in Whitney Houston.” Chin convinced him to “meet a couple of people” at Sundance before discarding the idea. And when Macdonald met Whitney’s agent, Nicole David, she put forward the idea of Houston as an enigma, a person whose tragically short life hadn’t yet been explained. “It was that, simply, that made me think, ‘gosh, that’s an interesting story.’ Of course, it turned into a kind of investigation film and I suppose that’s the structure I’ve given it. In a way, I’m the psychotherapist/detective, you could say.” So, even considering how much of Houston’s life has already been trawled through – again, Broomfield’s doc came out last year – Macdonald’s goal appears to have been to dig deeper to try and uncover some sort of explanation for why Houston died young. With that, the idea of this being a celebration of her musical contributions floats softly out the window.
I’m in no position to pretend to be objective about this: Whitney Houston was the first pop star who truly captivated my attention as a child in the 90s. For gangly black girls like myself, she represented someone who looked like they could have grown up down the road (or in my case, in the suburbs of Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone) but sang like no one I’d ever heard. She was a vocalist, through and through – something that’s not really a focus in pop now, and wasn’t before she made it so. Plenty of newer pop singers in 2018 don’t have to be particularly breathtaking to be successful. Billie Eilish. Bebe Rexha. Rita Ora. They all sing in a certain style – some version of a breathiness and an affected way of chewing over vowels – but they don’t belt from their chests as Houston once did.Though this film is hugely affecting, I can’t help but feel like it missed the opportunity to really unpack the significance of Houston’s artistry and ability. She was able to emote using her voice in a way that can be hard to put into words – and a documentary on her life could have attempted that in more depth. As an instrument, the voice can be downgraded as being somehow less important (see: unpacking what it means to be “just” a singer). Vocalists who don't also accompany themselves on guitar or piano or some sort of Real Instrument may be considered empty-headed puppets, while they wield an instrument inside their own bodies. Posthumously, Houston risks being undervalued in that way. Sure, she wasn’t a songwriter. But she was a one-of-a-kind vocalist. That’s why Whitney’s darkest moments arise from how drug use towards the end of her life shredded her voice into ribbons, making it crack and squeak where it once ran rich and thick from between her vocal cords.Rather than focus on this, Whitney tries to work backwards to figure out how that voice was lost. But we’ll never know. We’ll never know which version of Houston’s story was true. We’ll never fully understand how a life with so much promise and talent ended so early. Sure, Macdonald can use interviews and old footage to trace a path to that answer, turning Houston’s life into some sort of slightly voyeuristic true crime pastiche. But fans can live with the unknowable, settling into the comfort of Houston’s voice instead. It smacks you over the head, as a bellowed long note or a quivering vibrato in her head voice. And that'll be the case, even as the questions about her mysteries swirl in your mind.You can find Tshepo on Twitter.