wHitney Houston has already been the subject of two amazing and effectively competing documentaries: Whitney Nick Brumfield: Could It Be Me? from 2017 and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, which was released a year later. Each bogged down in its own way due to legal issues and family pressure, though Bromfield may have been the wisest and most prescient. Now here’s a musical biopic on very traditional lines from screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Casey Lemons: smooth-to-watch and well-done work. It’s a roughly 144-minute narrative montage, very evasive on major issues – seemingly deferring to everyone still alive and suing.
British actress Naomi Ackie is very strong in the role of Houston (even though Whitney’s original voice is dubbed); Houston was of course the glorified pop star who achieved mainstream success in white cross but was crushed by accusations of selling out, burnout, drug addiction, family strife, her volatile relationship with infamous husband Bobby Brown, and was tragically deprived of the affections of her best friend and best friend. Robin Crawford’s assistant. She was found dead in the bathtub of her hotel room in Los Angeles in 2012 at the age of 48 with evidence of cocaine use. Tamara Toney and Clark Peters give powerful performances as Whitney’s gospel-singing mother Sissy and overbearing father John; Nafsa Williams is highly believable as Whitney’s faithful but finally broken love-lost Crawford, and Stanley Tucci plays record boss Clive Davis with a steal.
The film skates on the still fraught subject of who was supplying drugs to Houston and then effectively enabling her sad death, simply not mentioning that Houston’s own adult daughter died only three years later in grim fashion. Documentaries were about allegations that family members had to get drugs on tour; This film conveniently invents a scheming white man who asks Houston for her autograph and then cash and drugs are exchanged surreptitiously under the guise of Houston getting a pen and paper out of her purse. This film does not mention the theory from the McDonald’s documentary that Houston was sexually abused as a child by her cousin.
Still, it delivers big scenes and big moments, especially her stunning performance of the National Anthem in the 1991 Super Bowl. But a music resume like this usually goes through four phases: rocky beginnings, success, crisis, and compensatory comeback. Whitney’s life can’t give us the last of these things and this film deflects its view from the grim final reality of that hotel room in 2012, preferring to return in flashback to Whitney’s triumphant performance at the 1994 American Music Awards, where she sang her famous medley of I Loves You. Porgy, and I’m telling you I won’t go and have nothing.
The ultimate questions never really get answered: Was Whitney a queer woman whose problems stemmed from her imprisonment in the closet? Was she a gospel/R&B genius whose ache stemmed from being the pop princess of a white audience? Or has she simply had to take drugs to relieve the pressures of a touring schedule forced upon her big-spending family entourage? It could be any of those, and the movie gingerly touches on each possibility. But it’s a muscular, honest performance from Accie.
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