McDonald’s film was made with the full cooperation of Houston’s family, but it avoids falling into the trap of becoming some worship piece. With the exception of Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown, who refused to discuss her very public substance abuse issues, the family is remarkably open about Houston’s life, from her arrival on the scene as a once-in-a-generation songbird to her self-inflicted demise as an emotionally wounded addict.
Along the way, there are attention-getting revelations, specifically with regard to the childhood abuse allegedly suffered by Houston at the hands of a relative — and which goes a long way toward explaining the previously unexplainable descent of a complex woman who appeared to have it all.
That being said, “Whitney” doesn’t revolve solely around the tragedy that killed her in 2012 at the age of 48. This, fittingly, is a story about her life as much as it is about her death.
That is to say, there is also no small amount of joy and triumph here, as McDonald puts her staggering talent into context, reminding viewers exactly what she meant, first to 1980s, MTV-generation America — and then to the world.
The interviews with her family help get that job done. The clever idea of demonstrating her vocal range by isolating the vocals from some of her more famous pop tunes helps even more.
And then there’s the moment on which the whole film hinges — and which perfectly encapsulates her record-breaking career: Her peerless performance of the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. McDonald wisely plays it in its entirely. It still brings chills, partly because it’s still a show-stopper but also partly because we all know how the story ends.
What McDonald ends up with is a film that serves both as tribute and as cautionary tale, and one that functions well as both.
To that extent, “Whitney” feels like a lot like “Amy,” the 2015 documentary about the similarly meteoric rise and heartbreaking demise of singer Amy Winehouse. Their self-destructive arcs were that similar.
When you get down to it, though, that doesn’t take anything away from the power of “Whitney,” which fits neatly alongside this year’s wealth of other celebrity documentaries.