“Whitney,” the second feature-length Whitney Houston documentary in 10 months, has the advantage of being produced with cooperation from Houston’s estate, providing greater access to those closest to her, including multiple relatives. The overall message, though, is much the same and painfully familiar — how the price of fame, and being pulled in multiple directions, contributed to the premature end of a one-for-the-ages talent.
Director Kevin Macdonald takes maximum advantage of his archival material and interviews to create an intimate portrait (estate executor Pat Houston is among the executive producers), but also brings a heavy hand to the editing process — throwing in images of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or the O.J. Simpson trial to help establish the historical moment. It’s a short-hand way of capturing what else was happening in the world, but proves merely a flashy distraction from Houston’s story.
The main points that shine through, underscored by some of the previously unseen home video and the recollections of family and friends, are pretty clear: Houston was groomed to be a star by her mother, Cissy; her family, especially her father, parasitically feasted on that success; and Whitney was often caught between conflicting forces, foremost husband Bobby Brown and her confidante Robyn Crawford (who, once again, is among the few people not interviewed), but also an African-American community skeptical of her crossover stardom.
With the benefit of hindsight, that last tension played a central role in Houston’s downfall, since she began her relationship with Brown after being booed at the Soul Train Awards. The R&B singer only made Houston’s life more tumultuous, including his clashes with Crawford and jealousy about Houston’s success, which seemed to feed her spiral into drug dependency. (Asked in the film to discuss her drug use, Brown shuts down the conversation.)
In one of the most painful sequences, Houston is shown struggling through a dissonant rendition of her signature hit “I Will Always Love You” during what was intended to be a comeback tour, prompting fans to demand refunds at some performances.
That’s contrasted with highlights that exhibit her otherworldly talent, from her spine-tingling rendition of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl to her very first TV appearance on Merv Griffin’s show in 1983.
There’s also a fair amount of time devoted to Houston’s relationship with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, who died three years after her mother, compounding the sadness surrounding Houston’s death at the age of 48 into a double tragedy.
Macdonald zeroes in on those who exploited Houston, and there are new revelations here, including accusations that a relative abused her as a child. But it all connects back to a tabloid culture that dogged her in life and remains fascinated by her more than six years after her death.
“Whitney” does bring viewers closer to the star — in a way the otherwise superior “Whitney. Can I Be Me” couldn’t — by presenting an abundance of unguarded behind-the-scenes glimpses, whether she’s playfully bantering with her entourage or badmouthing pop stars like Paula Abdul.
Ultimately, though, the latest documentary overreaches to make Houston’s life and death about something bigger, in a way that at times feels as strained as some of the notes during that aforementioned comeback.
“Whitney” premieres July 6 in the U.S. and is playing at Criterion Cinemas at Movieland in Richmond.