It’s hard to believe sometimes that Whitney Houston has already been gone more than six years, her extraordinary life cut short on Feb. 12, 2012, in an overflowing bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) is hardly the first one to tell her story on screen — there was a mostly unfortunate, extremely Lifetime-y Lifetime movie in 2015, and last year’s capable, if quotidian Whitney: Can I Be Me, by Biggie & Tupac provocateur Nick Broomfield.
But Macdonald is the first to obtain the unprecedented access to friends and family that Whitney has, and to float — if not outright confirm — the most cogent theory yet behind the ugly spiral into addiction and self-destruction that obliterated one of the most transcendent talents pop music has ever seen.
He does it all in a mode you might call haute Behind the Music, heavy on heady stylistic tricks — Houston’s swift rise to spangly ’80s glory, for one, is intercut with stark images of urban blight and the 1960s race riots in her Newark hometown — and previously unseen video clips so intimate they almost feel like a posthumous invasion of privacy.
Through the remembrances of Houston’s immediate and extended family, her hairdressers and agents and bodyguards, ex-lovers and closest friends (with the notable exception of the one person many considered to be her true life partner, Robyn Crawford), a portrait emerges of the woman everyone who really knew her called Nippy. Frankly beautiful and blessed with a phenomenal vocal range, she was also deeply damaged by her parents’ divorce, years of bullying at school, and the immense burden of double consciousness that came with being a black female superstar at the white-hot center of the cultural mainstream.
If Whitney homes in on the personal fault lines and betrayals that led her to disappear almost entirely and unrecognizably into addiction, it’s also a joyful celebration of her gifts. The goosebump moments in the movie are breathtaking, literally, and there are a lot of them: her epic 1991 rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sweat shining on her upper lip; “How Will I Know” rendered in shivery a cappella against her own multitracked vocals; that ridiculous money note on “I Will Always Love You.”
Most of those, of course, are already permanently archived in the popular imagination; it’s the small and often obscure moments that turn out to be the movie’s real reward. Even putting aside a late and genuinely stunning revelation, Whitney feels like the kind of film anyone who cared at all about her should see: the fullest portrait yet — if one that will always, inevitably fall short — of an artist and a human being who may have eluded understanding in the end, but still gave the world far more than she ever got back. A-