There is the Whitney Houston we know from music videos, the model-thin singer with the soulful voice and the bright smile.
There is the Whitney Houston we know from tabloid headlines and reality television, battling addiction and spiraling out of control.
And there is the Whitney Houston of history, who charted more No. 1 singles than any woman ever, while blazing a trail for African-American artists to follow.
Director Kevin Macdonald ambitiously tries to capture all of these Whitney Houstons in his documentary, “Whitney,” and if he’s unsuccessful, he can lay blame at the people who didn’t want to talk about her.
Macdonald starts with the jarring juxtaposition between Houston’s sunny early hits, and the Reagan-era optimism they represent, and the unrest of the late ‘60s, which Houston witnessed first-hand as a little girl growing up in Newark, N.J. Houston’s refuge from the streets was music, singing in the church choir and driven by her mother, Cissy Houston, a longtime back-up singer to everyone from Aretha Franklin (Whitney’s godmother) to Elvis Presley. Whitney could also boast that her cousin was the singer Dionne Warwick.
Whitney’s musical career was pushed by Cissy’s ambition, and aided by her father, John Houston Jr., a Newark city administrator and political fixer. She soon signed with Arista Records, guided by the legendary Clive Davis, and her ‘80s stardom was nearly instantaneous. What the public didn’t see, according to Whitney’s brothers, was her hard-partying habits and her reliance on her best friend, Robyn Crawford.
The movie walks right up to the line of suggesting a more-than-platonic relationship between Whitney and Robyn, but backs away just as quickly. Crawford isn’t interviewed in the film, so we don’t hear her side of the story.
Silence is Macdonald’s enemy repeatedly through the documentary. Cissy Houston appears toward the beginning of the film, but talks only about Whitney’s church singing. Pop star Bobby Brown, Whitney’s husband for 14 tumultuous years, refused to discuss Whitney’s drug abuse even when Macdonald asks him point-blank. Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died in 2015, taking what she witnessed with her.
Macdonald — who won an Academy Award for his 1999 documentary “One Day in September,” and guided Forest Whitaker to an Oscar in “The Last King of Scotland” — has some success getting past the tabloid struggles to pinpoint the impact Whitney Houston had on the culture.
For many, her best years were 1991 and 1992, when she wowed the nation with her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV, and made her movie debut opposite Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard” — a movie that produced the mega-hit “I Will Always Love You.” The movie was particularly important to African-American audiences, as it pivots on an interracial love affair between Houston’s pop singer and Costner’s title character. (Houston only acted in three more movies: “Waiting to Exhale” and “The Preacher’s Wife” in the ‘90s, and a thwarted comeback role in “Sparkle” in 2012, the year she died.)
These high points in Houston’s career also reveal why “Whitney,” as a documentary, doesn’t have the same gut-punch impact that, for example, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 film “Amy” does. “Amy” showed how Amy Winehouse mined her personal life, including her troubles with men and heroin, through her raw, confessional lyrics. Houston didn’t write her own music (the two songs that defined her in the ‘90s were penned by Francis Scott Key and Dolly Parton), and music was how she hid her problems from the world and herself.
Macdonald does provide some depth to our knowledge of Whitney Houston’s life — including a bombshell revelation about a childhood trauma — and tries to put her life and music into a broader context. Alas, “Whitney” leaves viewers with as many questions as answers, which may be exactly how the image-conscious Whitney Houston would have wanted it.
★★1/2 (out of four)
Opens Friday, July 6, at theaters nationwide. Rated R for language and drug content. Running time: 120 minutes.