A second look at the much admired and much missed Whitney Houston.



Just over a year ago when Nick Broomfield's Whitney: Can I Be Me co-directed by Rudi Dolezal was given a cinema release, it was already known that a rival account of Whitney Houston's life was in the pipeline with Kevin Macdonald as director. Now that it is here, there is an understandable urge to compare them and indeed the singer's most ardent fans will in all probability want to see both and draw their own conclusions. Similarities are unavoidable since both documentaries seek to celebrate the singer while investigating in detail a life that would end in tragedy but raised many still unresolved questions along the way. Inevitably, both films make much use of archive material to show the star performing and also giving interviews, so it is hardly surprising that some footage already seen is duplicated in this new piece.


I think that it is fair to say that, unexpectedly, Macdonald's film is the more probing, although at times it seems less well judged (there is more than one montage that intertwines to little purpose Houston's career with glimpses of the wider world as represented by, say, shots of Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan and there is a roughness that emerges when speakers are heard before being identified or when an explanation of what we are seeing is delayed just long enough to be irritating). It's also the case that the new film is a quarter of an hour longer than its predecessor and feels it. But these are all small points.


One aspect that is noticeably different lies in the fact that the Houston family which kept a distance from the earlier work were co-operating here and there are interviews with such significant figures as Whitney's older brother Michael, her half-brother Gary, her mother Cissy and her ex-husband Bobby Brown. However, the latter two contribute less than one might have hoped and a number of testimonies actually conflict. Certainly the family's involvement does not appear to have led to any censoring of comments included. However, neither film succeeded in getting an interview with Whitney's lesbian assistant Robyn Crawford whose relationship with the star remains the subject of much speculation. What Macdonald does provide is a statement of particular note from another of Whitney's assistants, Mary Jones. She describes how Whitney confided in her the fact that as a child she was molested by her cousin the late Dee Dee Warwick and that's a possibility that opens the door to intriguing theories about how that may have affected her attitude to lesbianism.


Now that both of these films are available, it is very clear that neither is a write-off. For some viewers, one film on the subject will suffice and neither would be a bad choice: on balance, I am inclined to think that Macdonald's film is the winner, but it's a close thing. However, neither can take the crown from Asif Kapadia's Amy when it comes to recent documentary biopics about singing stars loved and lost.




Featuring  Michael Houston, Gary Garland Houston, Cissy Houston, Mary Jones, Bobby Brown, Clive Davis, Alan Jacobs, L.S. Reid, Lynne Volkman, Steven Gittelman, Pat Houston.


Dir Kevin Macdonald, Pro Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn and Lisa Erspamer, Ph Nelson Hume, Ed Sam Rice-Edwards, Music Adam Wiltzie.


Lisa Erspamer Entertainment/Lightbox/Altitude Film Entertainment-Altitude Film Distribution.
120 mins. UK/USA. 2018. Rel: 6 July 2018. Cert. 15.