This post is a part of our New Voices Section.
Written by Dalin Rowell.
For most, the image of the late Whitney Houston is either one of two variations – a sparkly, bright eyed singer with magic pouring from her, or a thin, raspy voiced individual that got into trouble no matter which direction she went. But in the documentary Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) adjusts audiences to a different “lens” of sorts – one in which we don’t see the iconic vocal legend, but instead a New Jersey born “Dorothy”, trying to find her way back from a destructive Oz.
Sure, you could say that statement comes from a scene in which Macdonald shows Houston singing the ballad “Home” – but there’s more than that bit of evidence to support such a narrative. From her birth, to her introduction to the public at large, there is no denying that Whitney was in search of a life where she could find love and attention. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind that came from selling millions of records.
Macdonald doesn’t hide these and other darker truths of Whitney’s past, nor the “Wicked Witches” that existed in and out of her soul. As the documentary progresses, these figures (including her brothers, father and many others) transform before our very eyes into the monsters Whitney speaks of (via archival audio) in her dreams. They encouraged her bad behavior, neglected her at the lowest of moments, seemly all to continue the “fame train” that was the Whitney Houston brand.
Macdonald also showcases Houston’s existence in pop culture by juxtaposing archival footage of her to strong imagery of that era. There’s glimpses of Clinton, Saddam Hussein, historic tragic events – all combined with the sounds and sights of Whitney’s triumphant achievements throughout her career. Is the director attempting to say that Whitney’s legacy is just as important as those other figures during the 80’s/90’s? Or that she was the soundtrack of a generation? The way you interpret the message is on a case-by-case basis.
For this reviewer, Macdonald’s choices told me a different concept – one in which Whitney never realized the power she had over the world. She was a force, a voice, unlike any other of that time or since – and as much her die-hard fans knew that, the unfortunate conclusion to her story never involved her discovering such truths.
If you are at all a loyal fan of Mrs. Houston, you might wish that Macdonald had touched upon other mysteries you wanted solved, or to have a more graceful conclusion. But the director instead begins and ends the story of Whitney with a great crash, much like Dorothy feels when her Kansas house falls down. We as the audience have no moment to breath, and instead are holding onto our seats, gripping for a happy ending – one in which we’ll never receive.
This is the kind of movie where the craft of music isn’t explored, nor is there a deep dive into the mind of an artist. Instead, this is just the story of a gifted woman, who constantly was looking for a happier, more loving environment for herself – where she didn’t have to earn genuine affection through performing or financial profit. She just wanted to do what lyricist Charlie Smalls wrote down for The Wiz in 1975 “When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing…. I wish I was home, I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing…”
Dalin “Duckie” Rowell is a New York born, pastel loving film nerd. She graduated from The Art Institute for New York City, and currently works in the TV industry. Dalin also rocks the freelance writing life, and dreams of being a host on TCM. When she isn’t typing away at demon-like speeds, you can find her either seeing a Broadway show, eating too many macarons, planning her next trip to a Disney park, or talking about how Phantom of the Paradise is her favorite film.
You can find Dalin’s writing on SlashFilm, as well as her two blogs – The Faded Reel (for classic film reviews) and Magic-Ala-Mode (for rambles on life, movies, fashion and more.)
Twitter and Instagram is @magicalamode