Whitney ★★★★½

There have been a lot of documentaries around a lot of tragic celebrity figures recently and it would be easy to lump "Whitney" into this category where it's not hard to predict the beats and insights we can expect to get out of it-I certainly assumed a fair amount prior to walking into the film. That said, and I'm a sucker for music docs and music biopics, "Whitney" is a fascinating look into the life of a global superstar who everyone assumes they know because of this iconic status. The key word there obviously being "assumes" as director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Marley) smartly presents the story of Houston's life as we thought we knew it and then brings the audience around to the possible truths of the matter as those being interviewed (mostly Houston's close friends and relatives) came to realize certain truths themselves. In doing so, Macdonald essentially comes to pose a theory by way of what is revealed and how these revelations fueled the demons that it always seemed Whitney Houston never possessed.

What is referred to as a "double consciousness" is something that seeps its way into every facet of Houston's being and is rather captivating given her life trajectory. Houston was raised in the church, but saw her mother have an affair (with the preacher, no less). She was raised in East Orange, New Jersey-a middle-class suburb-and went to a private all-girls Catholic school, but had roots in Newark. She was bullied in school, but found solace in a single female friend, Robyn Crawford. There was who she was, who she wanted to be, and who she was supposed to be. This only carried into Houston's pop career when she was ultimately bullied by the black community for diverting from her Gospel routes with her troubled relationship and eventual marriage to Bobby Brown seeming more a direct rebuttal to these criticisms than anything else. This is without even going into the topics of her sexuality, her drug use, her role as a mother, her relationship with her father, and how her outlook on each of these aspects of life were influenced from the very beginning. Fortunately, the documentary weaves each of these strands together in expert fashion into a single, complete picture painting a portrait of Houston we've never seen before, but that makes so much more sense and makes her story all the more tragic.

There are a handful of quotes given by family members throughout the doc and one by her brother, Gary Garland, that is especially poignant that I won't repeat here as you can hear it in the trailer, but the one that stuck with me most went something along the lines of, "If you don't know yourself, you don't know what can save you." It's hard to believe that in her core, in her soul, Whitney Houston didn't have a solid idea of who she was, but through this portrait Macdonald paints it seems he's landed firmly in the camp that believes Houston was always chasing who she thought she was supposed to be until she didn't care anymore and instead of simply being who she truly was rebelled against that image of who people expected her to be to the point it killed her.

Other elements of note are that of how piercing the montage set to "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" comes to be given the reflective nature it is set within and how promising and buoyant young Houston seemed to be. Macdonald also consistently cuts to world events going on at the time of the events the doc is chronicling in the life of Houston as if to lend both a sense of perspective and understanding of the circumstances of that time period; most prominently is that of the fact Houston and her brother, Michael, didn't think of marijuana or cocaine as bad words coming into the eighties...it was just something everyone was doing. Macdonald also acknowledges the tragedy of Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and that poor, poor baby's incomprehensible childhood and the eventual hardships and misfortunes it bred.

Finally, I've seen Houston's star-spangled banner performance a handful of times, but when this film touches on what made her rendition of it so powerful (which in and of itself is really interesting and insightful) I still got chills...twice.