After achieving unparalleled commercial success in the 80s and 90s, Whitney Houston saw a rapid personal and professional decline at the turn of the millennium. The film, like its predecessors, attempts to prove that contrary to popular belief, addiction does not happen overnight. Approaching her rise with a cinematic flare fitting of her tremendous voice, director Kevin Macdonald often isolates the vocals of Houston’s greatest hits so the audience is overwhelmed by her talent. But Whitney’s most striking element is the total cooperation of her estate, which granted Macdonald unparalleled access to the late artist’s life. On-camera interviews with her family reveal that Houston’s drug habits began in her early 20s, that her and Bobby Brown’s substance abuse lead to the neglect of their daughter (who would ultimately, like her mother, overdose), and that Whitney and her brother were molested at a young age by their cousin, singer Dee Dee Warwick—something not even their mother knew until the film’s release.
Sometimes biographers try to play psychologist, painting their subject’s troubles with a broad brush: the fame killed her, her husband got her into drugs, when the reality is often more layered, and trauma is not so linearly traced. Macdonald generally avoids this narrative pitfall, with the exception of a few leading questions (at one point, he asks a confidante, “Did [Whitney] like sex?”). The result is a varied portrait which presents Houston, like most of us, as an imperfect human with complex relationships—a courtesy we rarely afford celebrities.
I entered the theater with my own complexities; Houston’s discography serves as a portal to my puberty where I found solace in the flamboyance of her falsetto and steadfastness in the strength of her belt. I often joke “I Will Always Love You” made me queer, but years later I’ve found that like many other critics, I unfairly dismissed Houston’s artistry. Treating her voice as a spectacle and writing off her songs (most of which, she did not pen) as corny and unsubtle counterparts to her unsubtle voice, yet devoid of the latter’s power. But we all had it wrong. Her voice was her artistry, an instrument she wielded with prodigal clarity and the true vessel of her expression. Measured by that criteria, she was a genuine superstar. Which makes the film’s denouement all the more heartbreaking when it begins to explore the loss of Whitney Houston’s gift.
The 2000s saw quite the departure from the pop princess who just wanted to dance with someone, as Houston’s drug habits became unignorable; she was losing weight, behaving increasingly erratic, and her voice was deteriorating. It culminated in a disastrous interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002, where upon being pressured about her drug use, she retorted, “First of all, let’s get one thing straight, crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack.” Within ten years she would be dead.
After her death, Sawyer revealed that Houston asked as she was leaving the interview, “Have you ever heard the sound of ten thousand people disappointed in you?”
Today, it’s not a hit record I keep returning to, but a 1991 live recording, in which Whitney sings, “When my life is over and done / remember, remember, remember, remember when we were together.” She’s 28 years-old, her voice is soaring, and she is singing to us.