Portrait of a Pop Princess

Rating: 3

By Jason Solomons

Only a few months ago, famous documentary-maker Nick Broomfield delivered a film on Whitney Houston. Called Can I Be Me, it showed the rise and fall of the powerful pop singer, much of the evidence supplied by a former bodyguard.

Now, like the proverbial London bus, along comes another film about Houston, simply entitled Whitney, bestowing on the I Will Always Love You star the single moniker status that she never quite achieved in her lifetime, unlike, say, Prince, Madonna and Beyoncé.

This one’s directed by Kevin Macdonald, himself a BAFTA- winning documentary maker whose exhaustive works include Touching The Void and Marley. He sets about building up a detailed portrait of the singer through searching interviews with family, friends and co-workers.

At times, it’s the method behind all this that’s even more interesting than Whitney herself – you constantly feel yourself doubting the stories, wondering if we’ll ever get to a ‘truth’ about Whitney. If the interviewees aren’t all exactly lying, their grip on the truth seems loose at best, others are in a state of denial, holding a position that verges on the preposterous – I’m talking to you, Bobby Brown, her ex-husband, who has the brazenness to say: ‘Whitney’s death had nothing to do with drugs.’

Yes, in a documentary about any life there are facts, of course, but in this instance, these don’t tell the story, nor explain it – how Whitney went from pure pop princess to drug-addled diva, dead in a bathtub at age 48.

I’m not going to spoil it, but there are revelations here, although even the most shocking of these – sexual abuse at the hands of a relative with a well-known music name – doesn’t really help explain anything, leaving the viewer to provide their own amateur psychological evaluation: ‘Oh, I see, she was abused, so of course that’s why she did crack…’

Curiously, while Nick Broomfield – a filmmaker known for inserting himself into his films with his signature white T-shirt, jeans and boom mike look – doesn’t make an appearance in his Whitney doc, the usually reclusive Macdonald features prominently here as a disembodied voice, asking, probing and pushing. You can detect rising frustration in the questions and you get the sense he’s drowning.

I was left admiring the voice and the cheekbones of his subject, appreciating the prettiness and the packaging of a crossover star. Despite being a nice white guy from Scotland, Macdonald does delve into the racial politics that weighed heavily on Whitney, and he clearly sets out the pernicious demands of fame and fortune, showing how the extended family become dependants, forced into strangely unhealthy situations, how mother and father are driven apart and bitterness sets in like an immovable toxic smog.

Obviously, with the consent of Whitney’s family, Macdonald has made a respectful, rather bleak film. To be honest, I’d have liked a bit more joy, more of a sense of the uplift in her music and the effect of that voice, something to reappraise her status as an artist. Is she a great, or just a shiny purveyor of pop that brought smiles and inspired a generation of vocal belters?

Although this is far from a music doc, amid all the accusations and recriminations, all the tabloid snaps of drug abuse and ghastly TV interviews, you really come out remembering the songs, humming them even, which suggests to me this is ripe stuff for a hit stage musical, an experience which might be altogether more fun and more fitting a tribute. So, what’s your favourite Whitney track? So Emotional? How Will I Know? Both might have been apt titles for this dour, sad, sobering look at a bright smile burning out.