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Biopic captures the wonder of Whitney

Brilliant documentary on the life of singer who died aged 48 is set into a context of America in the 1980s and onwards

05 July, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Whitney Houston in Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney

WHITNEY
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Certificate 15
☆☆☆☆

YOU don’t have to like her music – in fact, you don’t have to like pop music full stop – to be enthralled by this brilliant documentary on the life of singer Whitney Houston, who died in 2012, aged just 48, having had a long and very public issue with drug addiction.

But what makes Macdonald’s storytelling so compulsive isn’t the narrative arc of Whitney’s life – the gospel-singing youth, the break into super stardom, and the way she performed – but how it has been set into a context of America in the 1980s and onwards.

Macdonald always finds the wider story, using an individual to hold a mirror up to the society that has begot them, asking fundamental questions about the human spirit and condition. Here we are taken through the ties that bind families – and the accompanying stress points. He casts a light on black American experience, the effect vast riches have on an individual, about how to – and how not to – tackle success and what it’s like being a superstar with bundles of talent, but a truckload of personal issues as well.

Parts are moving: her gig in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island and subsequent election victory as South Africa’s first post-apartheid president is particularly moving and shows her global impact. The same applies to her role in the Kevin Costner film The Bodyguard. It was a cringy film, but I did not realise how important Costner and Houston snogging at the end was in terms of breaking down barriers of race in Hollywood and beyond. Costner’s memories of making the film have made me look at him in a new light.

Using archive footage not seen before, and illuminating interviews with her family, friends, colleagues and others who saw her life’s trajectory first-hand, Whitney is a well-crafted biopic of a woman who deserves to be remembered for her searing talent, her beautiful voice and not as the celebrity tabloid fodder she became due to her ill health.

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