News of the shocking revelations in “Whitney” quickly went viral early Thursday morning, once the first Cannes Film Festival screening of Kevin Macdonald’s wide-ranging bio-documentary about Whitney Houston let out. The film, made with the full authorization of her family, revealed that the departed singer had been victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hand of her cousin, the late vocalist Dee Dee Warwick.
And yet watching Macdonald’s broad-view documentary at the first press screening on Thursday morning, knowing the bombshells in store, actually made for somewhat richer and more engaging experience. Because we aren’t sideswiped by the late-in-film reveal, we’re better able to recognize the different ways Macdonald alludes to it, pointing towards it at different points in time.
While that’s an impressive fact to keep in mind, especially because the director himself was only able to land that bombshell confirmation fairly late in the editing process, it’s not an entirely surprising one.
Even with its shocking reveals, “Whitney” remains a straightforward behind-the-music doc that sticks to the standard rise-and-fall structure like a flight plan.
The film will invariably draw comparisons to Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” which also premiered at Cannes and went on to win the Academy Award for best doc, but I wouldn’t bank on similar awards in this case.
While Kapadia’s uncomfortably intimate burrow into the life of Amy Winehouse benefited from a trove of found footage and the director’s clear editorial stance, “Whitney” is built on a more conventional assembly of talking-head and pop montages, covering the keystone media moments in Houston’s thirty year career.
“Amy” was a full-on record, while “Whitney” is more a greatest-hits compilation.
Still, Macdonald’s film does have a thesis of a sort – namely that there was a world of difference between the international icon who delivered a rousing “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl and the somewhat shy woman her friends and family called Nippy.
While the film ably hits the major points in Whitney’s rise and fall — that Super Bowl performance, her concert in the newly reunited South Africa, her disastrous ABC interview in 2002 — it has a harder time cracking Nippy.
Part of that stems from few key figures’ reluctance to participate. The singer’s rumored lover Robyn Crawford only appears in archival footage, with the film coming oh-so-close to labeling the true nature of the two women’s relationship without coming right out and saying it.
In fact, the film often uses denials to make the opposite point. His voice bellowing from behind camera, Macdonald flat-out challenges Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown and former label boss L.A. Reid about the singer’s drug abuse. Though both men offer mealy-mouthed obfuscations, their body language and uncomfortable mien speaks volumes.