Review: Whitney

9 August 2018

Whitney is a biopic of the life and music of Whitney Houston, one of the best-selling singers of all time who sold 200 million records and is the only artist to have ever charted seven consecutive number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Whitney was written and directed by Kevin Macdonald; best known for his documentaries Touching The Void (2003) and Marley (2012).

As far as biopics go Whitney paints a very comprehensive picture, split more-or-less 50/50 between her personal life and her career. It dedicates a solid 45 minutes to her childhood, which does prove to be crucial to the narrative that unfolds later. However once her career kicks off that’s all put aside and her most iconic performances are given the focus they deserve. Probably for the best, as while the personal intrigue is worthwhile it’s likely secondary for most viewers. A healthy balance is struck between music and drama; my main critique with the film is how that drama was delivered.

As Houston’s life plays out a handful of questions start to emerge. Unfortunately, the questions are less “Why/how will this end?” and more “What happened?” Macdonald was clearly trying to inject elements of foreshadowing and exposition to the first act so that the audience would appreciate what is to come, but it just wasn’t made clear enough. Yes, certain people and elements become relevant later, but the abrupt cutting between the branching storylines made it unclear what I was supposed to be thinking. The real travesty of this is that the conclusion is honestly brilliant: the standout part of the personal section of the film. When the final pieces of Houston’s story are put together, the narrative as a whole took on an entirely different light. I just wish it was made clearer at the start; a fulfilling reveal requires that we know what the mystery is supposed to be.

Cinematically speaking, Whitney was relatively solid. Macdonald makes approximately equal use of archival footage, interviews, and concert performances, with the occasional scenic pan thrown in to fill out the gaps. It wasn’t particularly daring, but I’m of the opinion that compositional ambition should be secondary to quality, especially for documentaries. The relatively standard aesthetic was great for the musical performances, allowing them to be fully realised and for Houston’s phenomenal voice to shine. In the personal sections it became a bit of a downer though—only serving to highlight the choppy and narratively ambiguous storytelling.

Houston’s infamous decline and substance abuse is handled maturely; I was grateful for the absence of any moral grandstanding or anti-drug propaganda. Macdonald clearly has great respect for her as an artist and for what she meant to so many people, particularly the black community.

Overall Whitney is a rock-solid biopic about an entertaining subject. I respect it for that, but I doubt I’ll remember it more fondly than my favourite Netflix documentaries—and that’s the film’s real downfall. I couldn’t really recommend it as a $20 experience when for $12 a month you can get dozens of as-good or better substitutes, especially when Hereditary or What Will People Say are both showing. But if you can snag a cheap ticket, are sufficiently drunk, or love the 80s, you’ll probably have a good time with Whitney.

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