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Whitney: how the bleak new documentary betrays its subject

In the second film about Whitney Houston in the last year, the singers downfall is prioritized but her musical talents are frustratingly cast aside

From the blunt Christian-name title to the eye-catching, half-face-obscuring marketing materials to the general aura of solemn prestige around the entire project, it seems obvious what the template was for the makers and distributors of Whitney: theyre hoping for another Amy. Why wouldnt they be? Asif Kapadias 2015 documentary lament for the late British soul star Amy Winehouse earned critical raves, won an Oscar and raked in over 16m worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing UK documentary of all time.

In so doing, it set a new bar for the tragic icon subset of documentary-making; coming on the heels of big box office and Oscar wins for Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom, moreover, its success underlined the rise of pop music portraiture as serious-minded arthouse fare rather than puffy fan service. Fans still raw from Winehouses untimely 2011 death certainly led the audience for Amy, flocking to it as a kind of therapeutic experience, but Kapadias film reached further than that: by cannily and artfully selling itself as a kind of sobering, media-critiquing tragedy of our times, it generated keen word of mouth even among viewers (like, say, the senior denizens of the Motion Picture Academy) whod never bought a copy of Back to Black.

Whitney aims for a similar crossover of interests in its solid, polished study of the life and grimly drawn-out demise of chart-busting pop-R&B diva Whitney Houston though its hard not to wonder if the stars fans might feel more shortchanged than the dispassionate rubberneckers. Kevin Macdonalds film which premiered, just like Amy, in a prime Cannes film festival slot pays lip service to Houstons titanium-lunged talent and massive, boundary-breaking success, but youd be hard pressed to call it a celebration: it is primarily interested in tracing her downfall, and in uncovering the buried trauma at the root of it. The untold story for the first time, declares the UK poster for Whitney, and if the film is more thoughtful than that kind of tabloid brag implies, its nonetheless preoccupied with the most morbid facets of its once-luminescent subject.

That cheeky for the first time, of course, is plainly a dig at a certain other tragedy-oriented Whitney Houston documentary from a major British film-maker. Nick Broomfields Whitney: Can I Be Me came out only last year in lower-key fashion no Croisette red-carpet premiere, for starters and didnt make much of a dent commercially, shifting to television not long after a brief arthouse run in the UK while going straight to cable in the US. Broomfields film is smaller and less glossy than Macdonalds, and suffers from a certain paucity of credible talking heads: Houstons family, closest associates and ex-husband Bobby Brown all gave their face-time only to Macdonalds film, lending it the air of an authorised biography, albeit not an especially flattering one.

The films cover much of the same bleak territory of toxic marriage and substance abuse, with slightly different emphases. Can I Be Me builds its narrative more intently around the much-debated matter of Houstons sexuality, mostly pinning her personal collapse on the thwarting of her alleged lesbian relationship with best friend Robyn Crawford who, pointedly, has stayed far away from both films. Whitney touches on this tacitly exposingly homophobia within the Houston clan through their own interview clips but its mind is more on building toward that much-touted exclusive: the allegation, via key interviewees, that Houston was sexually abused in childhood by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick, the late sister of Dionne.

If true, its a sensational piece of backstory-as-story, casting Houstons much-documented demons in a new and even more upsetting light. Its a bombshell that risks dwarfing the rest of Macdonalds sharply assembled but otherwise less revelatory film though it does succeed in rendering Broomfields film, in some respects the more tender and questioning study, immediately outdated.

But how well is Houston herself served by these competing inquiries into her darkest secrets? Missing from both films combined celebrity autopsy is a more detailed appreciation of the woman as an artist one who bridged black and white forms of popular music to trailblazing, sometimes polarizing effect in the Reagan era, whose dazzling, octave-shimmying vocal style indelibly influenced everyone from near-contemporaries like Mariah Carey to next-generation icons like Beyonc, and whose 1990s segue into film acting briefly promised to make her the most inescapable, all-purpose supernova of her era.

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Photograph: Dirck Halstead/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

That didnt happen through mere chance and stardust: a world of musical nous, hard graft and studio craft, on the part of Houston herself and her army of collaborators, went into such all-conquering, four-quadrant pop triumphs as I Wanna Dance With Somebody and I Will Always Love You, yet the very making of her career is glided over, mostly in montage form, by Broomfield and Macdonald alike. Whitneys most fascinating section centers on her bold, socially significant rearrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner for a major sporting event and its ensuing cultural impact; it is an isolated nugget in a film that, certainly relative to Macdonalds generous Bob Marley doc Marley, doesnt appear all that invested in its subjects music.

To realise this is to think back on Amy, a beautifully constructed, deeply affecting work in many respects, and recall how its subjects own voice was somewhat buried in the mix. Tragedy sells, of course in the case of Winehouse, it was scarcely separable from her music even when she was alive, as she candidly and self-effacingly sang of addiction and emotional breakdown in a way Houstons more packaged pop career never permitted.

But talent sells, too. Two of the most rewarding music documentaries of recent years are Spike Lees twin appreciations of Michael Jacksons recording career. Bad 25 and Michael Jacksons Journey From Motown to Off the Wall thrillingly break down the musical inspiration, craftsmanship and commerce that defined his stardom at separate stages of his career, while setting the ample material of his bizarre, unhappy private life to one side. The film equivalent of obsessive album liner notes, theyre fan service in the best sense of the term. Theres certainly a whopper of a documentary to be made from Jacksons extraordinary, many-tiered personal downfall but Lee, as both a film-maker and a devotee, correctly senses that his stardom wouldnt get a fair shake in such a study.

Perhaps male pop idols in general are afforded more rounded documentary treatment: beginning with the countless lurid spins on the Marilyn Monroe legend, the temptation to portray their most ill-fated female counterparts merely as fallen angels, as fragile victims of the light, has always been strong. Brilliant and despair-inducing in equal measure, Whitney Houstons life is worthy of examination from all angles but after two films on the trot dwelling significantly less on her rise than her fall, she deserves a Spike Lee to place her back on her pedestal.

  • Whitney is released in the US and UK on 6 July

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jul/05/whitney-houston-documentary-kevin-macdonald

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