Film review: Whitney an upsetting look at the highs and lows of late singer's life

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald's portrait of doomed musical genius includes euphoric live performances that are a sad reminder of the immense talent lost when its subject, the singer Whitney Houston, died 2012, writes Damon Smith

Whitney Houston with her father and mother John and Cissy Houston and her husband Bobby Brown
Damon Smith

MY FIRST lingering memory of Whitney Houston was an infectious smile framed by tumbling curls of caramel hair telling me – and anyone who would listen – that she wanted to dance with somebody.

The whole world danced with Houston in the summer of 1987, propelling her to the top of the charts in numerous countries including the UK.

Staccato bursts of that rousing dancefloor anthem open Kevin Macdonald's revealing documentary, which arrives one year after Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal's poignant film Whitney: Can I Be Me.

The two portraits of doomed musical genius share some narrative threads including the importance of best friend Robyn Crawford to Houston's wellbeing, and the spiral of self-destruction which followed her marriage to bad boy singer Bobby Brown.

Macdonald's heartbreaking film is the only account of Houston's life and career officially supported by her estate and includes original studio recordings and never-before-seen footage alongside live performances recorded by the late singer.

The Scottish director of One Day In September – who is a grandson of renowned Hungarian-British film-maker Emeric Pressburger – has been granted unrivalled access to the family's archives and he lovingly assembles personal home movie footage, which reveals the humour and the anguish behind the polished stage persona.

Whitney shows boundless affection for its luminous subject but Macdonald's absorbing film is by no means a hagiography: unflattering images of Houston in a stupor are juxtaposed with one of her latter performances when she failed to hit the high notes in her cover version of I Will Always Love You.

There are strong echoes of the deeply moving, Oscar-winning documentary Amy as a glittering star falls back to Earth with a sickening thud.

What sets apart this meticulous sift through family albums from other character studies is the suggestion that Houston's downfall may have been precipitated by child abuse when she was growing up.

In one of the film's most eye-opening sections, friends and family members go as far as to name the person they believe was responsible for shattering Houston's childhood innocence.

Equally sobering are on-camera interviews with her brothers, who recall taking drugs with Houston, and the inescapable feeling that no-one in her entourage was willing to step forward and drag her back from the brink of oblivion when her gruelling touring schedule paid their wages.

Houston's parents, John and Cissy, cast a long shadow over her career and both figures are strong presences in Macdonald's film.

Euphoric live performances including her breathtaking rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl are a desperately sad reminder of the immense talent we all lost on February 11 2012, when the singer accidentally drowned in a hotel room bath tub.

The world will continue to dance with somebody at Houston's behest. Her vocals soar to dizzying heights and Macdonald's upsetting film follows her most of the way.

WHITNEY (15, 117 mins) Documentary. Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, John Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Robyn Crawford, LA Reid. Director: Kevin Macdonald

RATING: 8/10

Released: July 6 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

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